International Women’s Day Spotlight: Child Marriages
On International Women’s Day this year (March 8), The United Nations Population Fund focuses the spotlight on the problem of child marriages.
AsianScientist (Mar. 11, 2013) - Between 2011 and 2020, more than 140 million girls will become child brides, according to United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
If current levels of child marriages hold, 14.2 million girls annually or 39,000 daily will marry too young. Furthermore, of the 140 million girls who will marry before the age of 18, 50 million will be under the age of 15.
"Child marriage is an appalling violation of human rights and robs girls of their education, health and long-term prospects," says Babatunde Osotimehin, M.D, Executive Director, UNFPA. "A girl who is married as a child is one whose potential will not be fulfilled. Since many parents and communities also want the very best for their daughters, we must work together and end child marriage."
On March 7, a special session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) focused on child marriage. The Governments of Bangladesh, Malawi and Canada jointly sponsored the session, which was held in support of Every Woman Every Child, a movement spearheaded by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that aims to save the lives of 16 million women and children by 2015.
Child marriage - defined as marriage before the age of 18 - applies to both boys and girls, but the practice is far more common among young girls. Child marriage is a global issue but rates vary dramatically, both within and between countries. In both proportions and numbers, most child marriages take place in rural sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
In South Asia, nearly half of young women and in sub-Saharan Africa more than one third of young women are married by their 18th birthday.
The 10 countries with the highest rates of child marriage are: Niger, 75 percent; Chad and Central African Republic, 68 percent; Bangladesh, 66 percent; Guinea, 63 percent; Mozambique, 56 percent; Mali, 55 percent; Burkina Faso and South Sudan, 52 percent; and Malawi, 50 percent.
But in terms of absolute numbers, because of the size of its population, India has the most child marriages and a prevalence of 47 percent.
Child marriage linked to early pregnancy and marriage violence
According to the UN, complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading causes of death for girls aged 15-19 years in developing countries.
Of the 16 million adolescent girls who give birth every year, about 90 percent are already married. UNICEF estimates some 50,000 die, almost all in low- and middle-income countries. Stillbirths and newborn deaths are 50 percent higher among mothers under the age of 20 than in women who get pregnant in their 20s.
"Child marriage is not only wrong, it is dangerous. It exposes a young girl to profound health risks from early pregnancy and difficult childbirth and it exposes her baby to complications of premature birth," says Anthony Lake Executive Director of UNICEF.
In many poor countries, most young girls, regardless of age, are forced to demonstrate their fertility once they are married.
"These children, because that's what they are, are discouraged from using contraceptives or might have to ask their husbands' permission, or they have no knowledge of or access to what they need," says Carole Presern, PhD, Executive Director of The Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health and a midwife.
Loss of girlhood and health problems related to early pregnancy are not the only hazards confronting young brides. Even though some parents believe early marriage will protect their daughters from sexual violence, the reverse is often true, according to UN studies.
Young girls who marry before the age of 18 have a greater chance of becoming victims of intimate partner violence than those who marry at an older age. This is especially true when the age gap between the child bride and spouse is large.
"Child marriage marks an abrupt and often violent introduction to sexual relations," says Claudia Garcia Moreno, M.D., of WHO, a leading expert in violence against women. "The young girls are powerless to refuse sex and lack the resources or legal and social support to leave an abusive marriage."
A complex issue with deep roots
Child marriage, which has existed for centuries, is a complex issue, rooted deeply in gender inequality, tradition and poverty. The practice is most common in rural and impoverished areas, where prospects for girls can be limited. In many cases, parents arrange these marriages and young girls have no choice.
Poor families marry off young daughters to reduce the number of children they need to feed, clothe and educate. In some cultures, a major incentive is the price prospective husbands will pay for young brides.
Social pressures within a community can lead families to wed young children. For example, some cultures believe marrying girls before they reach puberty will bring blessings on families.
Some societies believe that early marriage will protect young girls from sexual attacks and violence and see it as a way to insure that their daughter will not become pregnant out of wedlock and bring dishonor to the family.
"Many faith leaders and their communities are already working to end child marriage and other forms of violence against children. Changing stubborn behavior is immensely challenging, so we must go further to positively influence beliefs and actions," says Tim Costello, Chief Executive of World Vision Australia.
UN Millennium Development Goals
If child marriage is not properly addressed, UN Millennium Development Goals 4 & 5 - calling for a two-thirds reduction in the under-five mortality rate and a three-fourths reduction in the maternal deaths by 2015 - will not be met, says the UN.
The continued occurrence of child marriage has hindered the achievement of these MDGs, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia.
"I urge governments, community and religious leaders, civil society, the private sector, and families -especially men and boys - to do their part to let girls be girls, not brides," says UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Ending child marriage would also help countries achieve other MDGs aimed at eradicating poverty, achieving universal education and combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, and should also figure within a renewed development agenda.
Strategies for ending child marriage recommended to the Commission on the Status of Women include legislature that increases the minimum age of marriage for girls to 18 years; providing equal access to quality primary and secondary education for both girls and boys; providing girls who are already married with schooling, employment, and livelihood skills, sexual and reproductive health information, and offering recourse from violence in the home; and addressing the root causes of child marriage, including poverty, gender inequality, and discrimination.
"The needs of adolescent girls were overlooked in the Millennium Development Goals; they must have a central place in any new goals set by the international community," said Lakshmi Sundaram, Global Coordinator of Girls Not Brides.
Source: WHO; Photo: Rajesh_India/Flickr/CC.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.