Each year, on June 12, the International Labor Organization (ILO) commemorates the World Day Against Child Labor to focus global attention on the extent of child labor and the actions needed to eliminate it. 

The ILO, which was founded a hundred years ago in the aftermath of World War I, is using the occasion of this year’s World Day Against Child Labor to urge accelerated action on Target 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), which calls on all “to take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labor … and secure the prohibition and elimination of all forms of child labor.”

These are noble and important goals, but we also urge the ILO to direct its focus on SDG Target 5.3, which calls for the elimination of “all harmful practices, such as child, early, and forced marriage.” For the truth is obvious: Child marriage is child labor within the ILO’s own definition.

The reality of day-to-day life for girls living within child marriages is one of servitude. They carry out all of the household chores, perform demanding agricultural work, and cook with fire and heavy pots of boiling water over unventilated cookstoves. They also work from dusk until dawn, waking at night to breastfeed, tend to sick kids, and care for elders; and they are forced into a sexual relations before the age of consent.

Consider the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) criteria for the worst forms of child labor: Work that is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous or harmful to children; work that exposes children to physical or sexual abuse; work that forces children to work long hours, which unreasonably confines them to the premises, and could result in a child’s death, injury, illness or disability.  Yet, many child “marriages” are still excluded from the ILO’s child labor statistics. 

The dots simply need connecting: A marriage to a minor who is too young to give her legal consent is by definition a forced marriage, creating a non-consensual relationship between a child and the man posing illegally as her “spouse,” which results in a forced labor situation. Forced labor is the worst form of child labor. Therefore, child marriage is child labor. 

AIDS-Free World concurs that anyone under 18 should be defined as a minor child, but we also recognize that the Convention on the Rights of the Child left it to individual governments to set the age at which a child becomes an adult and can legally consent. As a first step, while advocates for children work to raise the age to 18 in every country, it must be acknowledged that any “marriage” to a child who is too young to consent under her or his country’s existing laws is, by definition, in a forced marriage that results in child labor. 

There is no need to change any treaties or conventions. The legal basis for finally beginning to count child marriage as the worst form of child labor is solidly in place. The ILO statistics are no small matter. Bad data makes bad policy, and vice versa.

Undercounting the number of girls forced into child labor by omitting all those at work within illegal marriages is discriminatory. It means that critical resources, policies, and programs are being misallocated. People who are genuinely devoted to ending child labor worldwide are unaware that their goal cannot be reached unless we also end child marriage. Recent studies estimate that of the 12 million child marriages that take place every year, at least 7.5 million are illegal in the countries where they occur. This means a minimum of 7.5 million girls are missing from each year’s estimated total of child laborers, rendering the data inaccurate and skewing policy decisions.

It takes strength to abandon old habits and outdated perspectives; it takes courage to agree to a recount that will put the ILO farther from the finish line of eliminating child labor worldwide. But the world needs that strength and courage from the International Labor Organization and, more importantly, and urgently, so do millions upon millions of girls hidden in plain sight.

As the ILO outlined in its founding constitution one hundred years ago: “Universal peace can be established only if it is based on social justice.”

Paula Donovan is Co-Director of AIDS-Free World.