Countless women and girls have been abducted, raped, forcibly assigned as ‘wives’ to combatants and held captive within such forced marriages in conflict zones around the world. Forced marriage as an international crime remains controversial because it (i) is not codified in any international criminal statute, (ii) involves conduct overlapping with already-enumerated crimes against humanity and (iii) is inconsistently defined. Legal protections for girls in forced marriage reside in historical proscriptions against various forms of slavery — banned by jus cogens norms, international human rights and humanitarian law — including the crimes against humanity of sexual slavery and enslavement. Yet, despite similarities between forced marriage and numerous forms of slavery, international criminal courts have not yet prosecuted or convicted forced marriage as enslavement, and even its conviction as sexual slavery insufficiently captures the unique, multi-layered injuries its youngest victims suffer. International tribunals confronting evidence of very young girls captured as ‘wives’ and of female child soldiers serving as sex slaves have failed to adequately recognize or redress the egregious harms girl endure through forced marriage. Competing judicial and academic views on its proper classification have obscured courts’ oversight of forced marriage’s most vulnerable victims — female children. This article argues that, to advance justice for girls in conflict zones and end impunity for these atrocities, greater judicial emphasis is needed on the constellation of internationally recognized fundamental human rights of children violated by forced marriage, whether prosecuted as an ‘other inhumane act’ or slavery-related crime against humanity.
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