Published on Voices

Underage with an ID to prove it

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Rubi’s Story: Exulted, Rubi ran home. As fast as her fifteen-year-old legs could carry her, she ran, exam in hand, excited to share the results with her family. The results, she believed, would shape her fate.
Yet when she got home, the elation dissipated with the dust. Her father had his own news to deliver. She would not be going to secondary school, as she had worked for, as she had wanted. Instead, she would be getting married, an economic necessity for Rubi’s family as well as a common practice in Bangladesh. Early marriage is on the decline in Bangladesh, but high rates continue to prevail; 59 percent of all girls are married by age 18 and 16 percent by age 15.
The Advocates: When little, Rubi had been denied access to primary school because her parents hadn’t registered her at birth. Rubi’s mother got her daughter a birth certificate, and with that, she was admitted to school, a place where she thrived.
At 15, smart, ambitious Rubi did not want to get married. So she found advocates in her teachers and Plan International, a child rights organization. With their support, Rubi went to the Union Council Office where the chairman informed her parents about the legal ramifications of child marriage. She was not old enough and her birth certificate proved it. She was underage. So Rubi went back to school and on to graduate at 18.
Child Marriage: Rubi’s story highlights the global problem of child marriage, its impact on girls, and the role of identification in empowering girls to prevent it . Child marriage remains pervasive: every year, 15 million girls are married before 18.

The Law and Civil Registration. Rubi’s story also highlights the importance of a well-functioning marriage registry combined with laws that prevent child marriage. In Bangladesh, law mandates that a birth certificate needs to be shown to get married. In 2012, legal precedent established that marriage registrars are legally bound to stop child marriages.
The causes of child marriage are multifaceted and complex—including factors such as poverty, culture, gender and social norms, as well as gaps in laws and enforcement. A new report by the World Bank’s ID4D Program, The Role of Identification in Ending Child Marriage, highlights how official IDs and marriage registration can help; using data from 106 countries, the study found on average where birth registration rates were high, child marriage rates were low.
Lacking an ID Imperils: How is it that the absence of a birth certificate and weak marriage registration systems increase the likelihood of child marriage ? The World Bank report analyzes two cases—one of Syrian refugees in Jordan and the other in Indonesia.
Girls living in fragile and humanitarian settings are at higher risk of being married off as children . In Jordan, among the 630,000 Syrian refugees living there in 2014 as a result of the civil war, the percentage of registered Syrian marriages involving girls aged 15–17 had risen from 12% in 2011 to 31.7%. The minimum age of marriage in Jordan is 18. However, among refugees, the documentation required to enforce the law is likely to be missing, left behind, or destroyed. There is a pressing need for host countries to address matters of refugee identity —as the World Bank’s recent report on Forced Displacement makes clear.
Distance, cost, and burdensome laws and regulations often create barriers. According to the report, household surveys in Indonesia reveal a strong correlation between the lack of a birth certificate and child marriage . Parents fail to obtain birth certificates for their children primarily because of the difficulty and cost. Since 2014, the government of Indonesia has implemented several measures to tackle these barriers. They have removed fees, introduced mobile identity services in the villages, and linked identification services to mother and child health services.
Having an ID Protects: As of 2014, child marriage was prohibited in 147 out of the 173 economies covered by Women, Business and the Law. But many countries need better laws to protect girls. In 16 of the 173 countries, the minimum age of marriage for girls is less than 18 years old. Of these, 162 countries allow exceptions, and customary or religious laws can be used to override civil law.
But legal reform is not enough. Twenty-one of the 25 countries with the highest rates of child marriage have legislation that prohibits it. The report emphasizes that pursuing universal official identification is unlikely to have an impact on child marriage rates unless it is embedded in broader efforts to end child marriage.
Successful programs to prevent child marriage include improving girls’ access to secondary school, combining cash transfers with incentives to keep girls in school, and implementing programs linked to training and economic opportunities. Mobilizing communities to support these initiatives is critical. More and more young women, like Rubi, are speaking out and leading the momentum for change.


Lucia Hanmer

Lead Economist, Gender

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