Countless underage girls around the world are being forced to work long, punishing hours. They're cooking, cleaning, and caring for young children. They're being denied education, access to future employment, and agency over their own bodies and lives. Every day, older men are raping these children, enslaving them, and violating their fundamental human rights.
The plight of these girls is known. They are trapped in illegal child marriages. Yet today, on World Day Against Child Labour, they and their work are being ignored � cast aside by the very organization that has the political clout and powerful reach required to help them.
We're talking about the International Labour Organization. As a UN agency that operates the world's largest global program to end child labour, the ILO is uniquely positioned to attack the problem by marshalling the resources of not just member governments, but also the private sector and unions.
According to the ILO's statistics, there are 168 million child labourers worldwide. The number of girls and boys engaged in child labour under the age of 11 is fairly equal. But by their mid-teens, about four times as many boys as girls are trapped in child labour.
Sounds like relatively good news for the girls of the world, right? Wrong.
These girls haven't escaped child labour. They haven't returned to their families and enrolled in school. They aren't free. They're still captive and they're still working, but they've become invisible � erased from the ILO's statistics because they've become underage, illegal wives.
Why does the ILO leave these girls out of its tallies, and the associated funding, programming, and support? AIDS-Free World pressed the ILO for an answer.
"Child marriage may not be interpreted as constituting a worst form of child labour for girls, given definitional primacies, the ILO said in a letter to AIDS-Free World. In essence, the ILO claims that the labour performed by girls in illegal child marriages does not qualify as work.
Prostitution and pornography are considered among [the worst forms of child labour] as there is a work-related aspect, the ILO wrote. On the other hand, incest and early child marriage, although encompassing forms of sexual exploitation, do not constitute [worst forms of child labour].
The ILO also makes this distinction: chores performed by a child in a third-party household, whether paid or unpaid, qualify as work; household chores performed in one's own household do not. The agency says illegal child wives are doing household chores in their own homes.
But to treat the home of her spouse as the child's own home is indefensible. She can't consent to the illegal marriage or the nature of her living arrangement. Calling the household her legal home is akin to calling a kidnapper's household his victim's valid home.
Look at other criteria the ILO uses for child labour � as well as hazardous work and the worst forms of child labour � and you'll see it matches up with the conditions of child marriage. Does the work done by the child in the marriage interfere with her schooling? Yes. Does it unreasonably confine the child to the premises of her employer? Yes. Could the work result in the child's injury, illness, or death? Yes. Does the work expose the child to physical, psychological, and sexual abuse? Yes, yes, and yes.
Yet every year, millions of girls are excluded from the ILO tallies because the men who robbed them of their childhoods � and put them to work � first married them.
These girls are used as round-the-clock domestic servants, habitually raped, and deprived of their childhoods, their potential, and their dignity. They face serious dangers, including an increased likelihood of contracting HIV because they don't have access to contraception or they fear asking their older, more sexually experienced husbands to use it. These girls face an elevated risk of early childbirth that can lead to death. Men are breaking the law, and the United Nations is breaking its promise to fight all forms of discrimination against women and girls.
Child marriage is not merely a harmful tradition, nor a ritual that simply happens too early. It is not a condition, like abject poverty. It is a violation, a crime perpetrated by a man against a child. It is a complete violation of a girl's human rights. And it is child labour in its worst form. To turn a blind eye is to endorse the practice.
The UN has called for ending all forms of child labour by 2025. But that's not possible unless all child labourers are counted. The statistics matter; they indicate who needs help and who should and will get it. And the ILO is enormously powerful. Bringing together member states, trade unions, and the private sector to work on the issue of child marriage would provide an entirely new perspective from which to combat this scourge. So now, as we observe the World Day Against Child Labour, it's time for the ILO to include illegal child wives in its data � and to use the agency's considerable power to find funding, offer support, hold perpetrators accountable, and ensure the labour of millions of girls is no longer ignored.