Fortunately, Thea isn't real. But child marriage is. October 11 marks the UN International Day of the Girl.
10 Oct 2014 - 4:37 PM  UPDATED 11 Oct 2014 - 8:10 PM

Like most 12 year olds, Thea likes horses, taking selfies, and the UK boyband One Direction.

But unlike most teenagers, the pretty blonde Norwegian girl is also engaged to 37-year-old Geir, and has been blogging about preparations for her big day on October 11.

"I learned from Mom yesterday that I'm getting married. I will marry a man named Geir and it is a bit strange because I know he really is so grown up," Thea wrote in her first blog post in September.

When her blog went live, it was reportedly the most read website in Norway. Across the nation, people were outraged that this was happening in their home country and many alerted child protection authorities about the wedding. 

Fortunately, Thea isn’t real.

The fake wedding was part of Plan International’s viral campaign to raise awareness about child marriage as part of the UN International Day of the Girl Child on October 11.

"You know it created quite a storm in Norway. People left, right and centre were ringing up authorities saying that it was obviously against Norwegian law," said Plan Australia CEO Ian Wishart.

In a report released this year (PDF), Plan estimated that at least 14 million girls under 18 are married every year – about 39,000 girls a day. At this rate, there will be 140 million child brides by this decade, the aid and development organisation reported.

"The point of the matter is that 39,000 girls a day are facing this prospect, but one fake child marriage blog quickly had everyone’s attention. So what we do need is everyone’s attention on those 39,000 girls around the world who are suffering this fate," said Wishart.

Child marriage is forced marriage

Child marriage is the forced or coerced marriage of a young person under the age of 18. It is illegal in almost all countries as it is recognised, in both international and domestic law, that children are not capable of giving consent to a marriage.

“Not only is child marriage prohibited in international law, but any kind of marriage must be entered into with full and free consent of each of the spouses,” said Jennifer Burn, law academic and director of the Anti-Slavery Australia at the University of Technology, Sydney.

“It’s agreed that children do not have the capacity to fully and freely consent to a marriage. And that’s why the focus of Australia has been on child marriage and on forced marriage - looking at both those forms of human rights abuse.”

According to a 2014 UNICEF report, child marriage is most prevalent in South Asia and sub-Saharan African.

South Asia is home to nearly half  - 42 per cent - of all child brides and Niger has the highest overall prevalence of child marriage in the world.

Aid organisations like UNICEF have reported that child marriages are slowly declining. Currently one in four young women who are alive today were child brides. This represents a small decrease from the early 1980s where one in three girls were married.

‘A disastrous outcome’

While it is illegal in most parts of the world, child marriage remains a practice today because the issue is complex.

Several key reasons are highlighted by Plan Australia. They include: traditional gender roles where girls are only expected to marry and produce offspring; poverty and financial hardships that drive parents to marry their daughters off, sometimes in the hope that they will have a better life; and weak domestic laws that don’t recognise child marriage as illegal or a violation of child rights.

“For a young women, child marriage is a disastrous outcome,” Mr Wishart told SBS. “They’re often married to older men so she remains virtually powerless in these relationships. They’re certainly not partners in the marriage and this often leads to violence."

Ms Burn added that girls can also suffer psychological trauma.

"The consequences of a marriage without full and free consent can be terrible. It can involve harm, sexual assault, psychological pressure," she said. "It can have a terrible impact on the person who’s affected."

Child brides also have lower levels of education and higher rates of early pregnancy, which could lead to health complications, especially in developing nations where proper medical care is less likely.

In Malawi, for example, nearly two-thirds of women with no formal education were child brides compared to five per cent of women who received secondary or higher levels of education.

Meanwhile in Nepal, UNICEF reported that one-third of women aged 20 to 24 who were married before 15 had three of more children, compared to one per cent of those married as adults.

‘It happens here in Australia’

Although cases are rarer, child marriage does occur in Australia.

Just last month in September, a 14 year old girl was stopped at Sydney airport when authorities discovered she was to be married in Lebanon. 

Ms Burn admitted that it is difficult to know exactly how common the practice is in Australia, but warned the public not to sensationalise the issue.

"We certainly have some reports in family court cases, but so far, cases that have actually been identified as child marriage or forced marriage are really quite small," she said.

"It’s important that we don’t sensationalise the issue. Sometimes there are media reports that would suggest that there are hundreds and hundreds of girls in child marriage but so far those reports haven’t been validated."

In 2013, the federal government passed legislation making the coercing of someone into marriage a serious crime, punishable by up to seven years in prison.

But while government responses are necessary, Burn added that community engagement will drive real and lasting change.

"What we really want to do is to ask communities about the best way is to respond to child marriage and forced marriage," she said.

"Communities really are the best groups to advise about strategies. Because working with communities is the most effective in ensuring that we can really protect children."

October 11 marks the UN International Day of the Girl Child