June 16, 2013

The Tragedy of Child Brides

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that of a total 140 million child marriages expected to take place between 2011 and 2020, 50 million will involve girls under the age of 15.  The UN, and most organization which track child marriages, define a child bride as a girl younger than 18 years of age. Boys are included in the statistics for child marriage, but comprise a small minority of children entering into marriage before age 18.

child-bridesThere are many negative effects of this practice. The facts below, compiled by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), highlight the tragic consequences for girls in a child marriage.

  • Child brides often show signs symptomatic of sexual abuse and post-traumatic stress such as feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and severe depression.
  • Girls younger than 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s. Pregnancy is the leading cause of death worldwide for women ages 15 to 19.
  • Child brides face a higher risk of contracting HIV because they often marry an older man with more sexual experience. Girls ages 15 – 19 are 2 to 6 times more likely to contract HIV than boys of the same age in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Girls with higher levels of schooling are less likely to marry as children.
  • Girls living in poor households are almost twice as likely to marry before 18 than girls in higher income households.

While the practice of child marriage has decreased worldwide over the last 30 years, it remains common in rural areas and among the poorest of the poor.  The regions where the practice is most prevalent include:

  • Southern Asia, 48%—nearly 10 million—of girls are married before the age of 18
  • Africa, 42% of girls are married before turning 18
  • Latin America and the Caribbean, 29% of girls are married by age 18

An end to child marriage won’t come quickly or easily in these regions.  It is tightly woven into the cultural and religious life of the communities there.  As Cynthia Gorney reported in her story on child brides  for National Geographic:

“The very idea that young women have a right to select their own partners—that choosing whom to marry and where to live ought to be personal decisions, based on love and individual will—is still regarded in some parts of the world as misguided foolishness. Throughout much of India, for example, a majority of marriages are still arranged by parents. Strong marriage is regarded as the union of two families, not two individuals. This calls for careful negotiation by multiple elders, it is believed, not by young people following transient impulses of the heart.

So in communities of pressing poverty, where nonvirgins are considered ruined for marriage and generations of ancestors have proceeded in exactly this fashion—where grandmothers and great-aunts are urging the marriages forward, in fact, insisting, I did it this way and so shall she—it’s possible to see how the most dedicated anti-child-marriage campaigner might hesitate, trying to fathom where to begin.”

Child marriage not only has adverse consequences for the girls affected, but also hurts the those societies in which it is common.  As Anju Malhotra, Vice President of Socioeconomic Development for the ICRW points out:

“Child marriage not only violates the human rights of girls, but its negative consequences ripple across entire societies. The practice contributes to extreme and persistent poverty; high illiteracy; high incidence of infectious diseases, including HIV; elevated child mortality rates; high birth rates; low life expectancy for women; and hunger and malnutrition. The consequences of child marriage undermine nearly all the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, a set of eight targets that respond to the world’s main development challenges.”

The practice of child marriage represents a global problem, and it is only with a global effort that it will eventually be eliminated.  Until we ensure that every girl has the right to an education, to grow up in safety, and make her own choices about whether and whom she will marry, we will never be free of the scourges of poverty, ignorance and violence.

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