Every year, 13.5 million girls around the world marry before their 18th birthday. Almost half of all girls in the poor countries are married before turning 18 and 11% are married even before 15 years of age. Due to its high population, most of child marriages take place in South Asia (46%) and in sub-Saharan Africa (41%). The percentage of boys in these regions, married between the ages of 15 and 19 years is much lower, at less than 5%. So, gender bias is clearly built in and it becomes an issue of marriage of girl children.
The highest rates of child marriages are found in Niger (75%), Chad, Central African Republic, and Bangladesh (66%), in that order. But due to rather high populations, India and Bangladesh become the significant. The rate of child marriages is about 47% in India, but due to its huge population base it accounts for around 40% of global child marriages.
What Makes Poor Countries Havens Of Child Marriages
Poor societies are marked by low levels of development including schooling, healthcare and employment and high birth and death rates. Many of these countries are disaster prone or torn by civil conflicts which further aggravate poverty – in fact, they are extremely poor and human development indexes (HDI) are the lowest in the world. Multiple and drawn-out shocks erode people’s capacity to cope. Unreliable economic conditions and absence of rule of law create fear and panic that leave children particularly exposed to abuse and exploitation. In these societies, the demography is such that children and youth make up a large proportion of the population, often over 50%.
‘When the poverty here gets worse, we see an increase in young girls getting married.’ – A Woman in Somaliland
Girls living in these societies are highly vulnerable because existing social networks and legal mechanisms are either very weak or disrupted. Early marriage of girls is seen as a family protective response to the crisis. Fear of sexual violence and pre-marital pregnancies leading to family shame and dishonor, homelessness and starvation force parents to marry away girls. It is a cruel irony that the already existing extreme poverty exacerbates the already negative health and psycho-social consequences of early marriage. It perpetuates the vicious cycle of extreme poverty feeding its own root causes!
Poverty coupled with social customs, weak status of women and lack of alternative opportunities for girls (especially education) create conducive atmosphere to marry away girls, otherwise seen as financial liabilities.
Child Marriage Is Bad, Always Bad
Early marriages disrupt the normal growth to adulthood and a violation of children’s rights.
However, child marriage is not just a one-time violation of human rights; it triggers a range of violations that continue throughout a girl’s life. It endangers the survival and well-being of adolescent girls by exposing them to the dangers of physical and sexual violence as well as to early, unplanned and frequent pregnancies. Further, marriage puts an end to girl’s educational opportunities and thus puts her into a lifetime of economic dependence. Therefore, it is simply wrong to force matrimony upon girls who aren’t old enough to understand the implications of marriage.
The international development community recognizes the adverse impact of early marriage on the ‘economic, legal, health and social status of women and girls’ as well as ‘the development of the community as a whole’. The UN plans to end all child marriages by 2030.
It is estimated that in India four million girls between the ages of 15-19 give birth every year.
Pregnancies at such early age are riddled with complications because the female body, though capable, is not yet ready for the rigors of childbirth. Such pregnancies can invite a host of medical problems such as anemia; pre-eclampsia – where women start passing protein in their urine, which is characterized by seizures and coma. This condition can also affect other vital organs like the kidneys, liver and brain; postpartum hemorrhage; and premature birth which can invite complications like neonatal mortality (child death within the first month), developmental disorders, respiratory complications, vision and heart-related problems; and low birth weight.
Girls In The Poor Countries
“A girl growing up in Chad today is more likely to die in childbirth than she is to attend school.”
The quality of life for a married girl is often extremely poor, particularly when she gets pregnant. Complications, such as obstructed labor, can lead to chronic disabilities including fistula. While such deaths and debilitating conditions are manageable if there is access to proper medical facilities. However, such services are very weak or non-existent in most fragile societies.
Gender discrimination compounds the problem further. Observers reveal that male staff is often so derogatory that patients decide to return home without any care at all. The states are too weak to enforce proper service. In rural areas of Bangladesh, community clinics often offer the only locally available health service, yet they are irregularly staffed and under-stocked, leaving girls with no alternative but to deliver babies unassisted or to walk long distances to the local hospital. Many die on the way.
Globally, perinatal deaths are 50% higher among babies born to mothers under the age of 20 than among those born to mothers aged over 20. Babies born to adolescent mothers are also more likely to be of low birth weight, with the risk of long-term consequences.
Increased Exposure To Sexual And Gender-Based Violence
Marriage exposes girls to all forms of abuses – and they often harbor the belief that husband is justified in beating or raping them. Girls generally lack the negotiating skills and knowledge of contraceptives and reproductive health issues – in effect, they lack control over when and how to have sex. As a result, reports show that married girls in East Africa are 75% more likely to have HIV than sexually active unmarried girls.
Although refusal of sex is a rare privilege, but it almost certainly invites beating by the husband. Abuses also come from men’s frustration from girl-wives inability to cope with household demands and expectations. Similarly, boys who were unprepared for the responsibilities of marriage and family life were reported to become increasingly aggressive towards their wives. Dowry violence is a recognized consequence of early marriage in South Asia.
Systemic gender inequalities and the treatment of girls as commodities means that girls may be married (false marriages) for trafficking. Bangladesh is a well known hotspot where influential people particularly from the Gulf come to take away girls as “wives.” Well organized groups operate to provide “all assistance” to the wealthy clients, from locating “brides” to travel documentation. Most end up is sex trade. Fears of such incidences also motivate parents to marry away their daughters as early as possible.
Natural Disasters Promote Violence Against Women and Girls
In Crisis, Girls Become “Dispensable”
There is substantial evidence from across the world to suggest that violence against women and girls increase in the immediate aftermath of conflict and natural disasters. Women and girls always suffer disproportionately in the post-conflict and post-disaster situations.
After the 2004 tsunami, forced child marriages and other forms of sexual violence increased in Indonesia. Families in refugee camps saw early marriage as the only protection for their daughters against the threat of physical abuse. In the aftermath of 2010 floods in Pakistan and the earthquake in Haiti, similar findings were reported by relief and rehabilitation workers. In the months following the cyclone Sidr in 2007 in Bangladesh, there was significant spurt in child marriages. The insecurity of camp life, combined with the lack of opportunities for girls to enter the protective school environment, meant that more adolescent girls were married.
The disaster doesn’t have to be acute; girls get victimized even in the drought conditions as is the case in Somaliland currently. With no chance of attending school, girls have to walk long distances to fetch water, firewood or to look after livestock in often hazardous and insecure areas. The fear of sexual assault is acute in these remote areas which forces the parents to marry their daughters for safety.
Early marriage creates vicious and intergenerational cycles of poverty. Girls’ education and women empowerment are the keys to eliminating girls’ marriages which sustain both poverty and high population growth. Patriarchy is the big hurdle along with social traditions which turn girls into brides. Laws alone can’t solve deep rooted ills in people’s thinking. Economic growth and strengthening education and medical infrastructure point to the right direction for a good future.
Read more details: Child Marriages in the Poor Countries