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Japan can end child marriage at home, and help end it abroad

by Kanae Doi

Contributing Writer

Japan looks set to join the global push to end child marriage. It is time for Japan to do much more to help end child marriage not only at home, but around the world.

A proposed revision of the Civil Code would set the minimum marriage age at 18 for both females and males. At present, people must be at least 20 to marry without parental permission; with parental permission males can marry at 18 and females as young as 16. The government-proposed amendment would take effect in 2022.

This step is long overdue. Two decades ago, the Justice Ministry’s Legislative Council proposed an updated Civil Code that set the marriage age at 18 for everyone, but it was not adopted. Different marriage ages for females and males are discriminatory and go against Japan’s international human rights obligations. And child marriage — under age 18 — is a global epidemic with devastating consequences for girls and their families.

The vast majority of married children — over 80 percent — are girls. Around the world, 12 million girls marry each year. Many of the countries with the highest rates of child marriage are in Africa, South Asia and Latin America, but child marriage is also a problem in the United States, Europe and, yes, though the number is small, in Japan. A Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry population survey found that 1,357 of 630,000 females who submitted marriage registrations in 2015 were 16 and 17.

Child marriages are often coerced or forced. Children have little ability to resist when their families decide they should marry. Families marry off their daughters for a range of reasons, including poverty, discriminatory attitudes toward girls, pressure created by dowry and bride-price systems, insecurity stemming from conflict and disaster, lack of access to education for girls, and stigma related to girls having romantic or sexual relationships outside of marriage.

The harm from child marriage is remarkably similar around the world. Married children are at great risk of dropping out of school, making it more likely that they, and their children, will live in poverty.

Married girls face serious health risks, including from giving birth before their bodies are fully developed, and having closely spaced births. These can include fistula, uterine prolapse, low birth weight, complications in delivery and death. Child marriage is also associated with other health problems, including mental health problems such as depression.

Married girls are also more likely to face domestic violence and less likely to escape it. They are usually expected to have sex whenever their husbands want it, so rape often becomes routine.

These are some of the reasons that under the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which went into effect in January 2016, countries around the world, including Japan, agreed to a target of ending all child marriage by 2030. Countries including the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Germany, Guatemala, Honduras, Malawi, Nepal, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden — and a growing number of U.S. states — have recently revised their laws to end or reduce child marriage. Many other countries have developed or are developing national action plans for ending child marriage by 2030.

Japan is joining this important global fight by setting the minimum marriage age at 18. However, as the world’s third-largest economy and human rights as a core value, Japan should not stop there.

The Japanese government is a major contributor of international development assistance. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) works in 29 of the 40 countries that UNICEF said in 2017 had the highest child marriage rates, including Niger, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, South Sudan and India.

But JICA has little programming focused on helping to end child marriage, and Japan’s foreign minister rarely talks about child marriage. This should change. The Foreign Ministry should make ending child marriage a priority in Japan’s foreign policy. JICA should develop a strategy for helping to end child marriage globally, and integrate support for ending child marriage into its country programs around the world.

Japan makes itself a more credible partner in the global fight by ending child marriage at home. Key donor countries such as the U.S. and Britain still need to address child marriage at home before they can fully contribute to the global effort. Japan can help fill the gap.

The government should be proud of its effort to end child marriage at home. It should build on the new law by taking a more active role in the global effort and by supporting reform in the many countries where many girls are losing their future by marrying too young.

Kanae Doi is the Japan director of Human Rights Watch.