Ending child marriage

Carolyn Moynihan
13 May 2011
Reproduced with Permission

The custom of marrying off adolescent girls is on the decline in developing countries, but millions of girls remain at risk, according to a new report by the Population Reference Bureau.

The PRB is a US non-government organisation that works in closely with the UN and other population groups, as well as aid organisations and reproductive health groups, so it is not an easy task to sort out population control interests from human rights issues in this campaign against child brides. Nevertheless, the figures they present are disturbing.

In the last decade, 58 million young women in developing countries - one in three - have been married before the age of 18, many against their will and in violation of international laws and conventions on women's rights. Even more disturbing, according to new figures, one in nine girls, or 15 million, have been forced into marriage between the ages of 10 and 14.3 With limited education and economic opportunities, child brides are often condemned to a life of poverty, social isolation, and powerlessness, infringing on their human rights, health, and well-being.

PRB says that "to meet goals related to poverty, education, gender equality, maternal and child health, and HIV and AIDS, nations and communities must put an end to child marriage."

If we add "recognising the human dignity of women and girls" it will give us a filter for discerning the right means for attaining those goals.

We also need to define "child marriage". While marriage before the age of 18 is by no means desirable, girls of 15 to 18 years of age are in a different category to younger girls, who better fit the definition of child.

In some countries child brides are more common, and there are differences within countries, especially between cities and rural areas. In the Amhara region of Ethiopia half of all girls are married before their 15th birthday and, according to a study of two districts, 14 per cent before they were aged 10. In Nepal, 7 per cent of girls are married by age 10 and 40 per cent by age 15. Mali, Bangladesh and some states of India also have rates of early adolescent marriage at around20 per cent.

Risk factors for child marriage are predictable: poverty, lack of education opportunities, the lure of a bride price. Also:

Parents may worry that if they do not marry their daughters according to local expectations, they will be unable to marry them at all. They may also believe that marriage will ensure their daughters' safety by preventing premarital sex and out-of-wedlock pregnancy. And traditional cultural norms of older men marrying young, virginal girls to prove their masculinity continue to drive this behavior. These factors must all be taken into account in developing interventions that work to end child marriage and its devastating outcomes.

The practice is patently harmful:

Child marriage undermines nearly every Millennium Development Goal; it is an obstacle to eradicating poverty, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality, improving maternal and child health, and reducing HIV and AIDS. Child marriage also infringes on the rights of women and children by denying them access to an education, good health, and freedom. These rights are spelled out in international agreements such as the Convention on the Elimination on All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

The PRB report details some of the benefits of delaying marriage: protection of maternal and child health, reducing the risk of HIV and AIDS, improving reproductive health and wellbeing, education and economic opportunities. Examples of programmes aimed at reducing child marriage and changing attitudes to it are given. These cover informing girls about their right to free consent to marriage; lessons on HIV, STIs and contraceptive use; awareness-raising among parents, teachers and community leaders of the importance of education for girls; creating more educational opportunities for girls; schemes for generating income for girls; and use of the mass media to change community norms.

A list of priorities for policies and programmes begins with enforcing "existing laws that increase the age of marriage to 18 for girls and boys and develop more stringent penalties for parents who arrange for their children to be married." Another item reads:

Address the needs of very young adolescent girls. Research and policies need a greater focus on 10-to-14-yearold girls, an extremely vulnerable group. While many developing countries have promoted girls' education, health policies are almost nonexistent for this age group. Priorities for policy change include integrating adolescent reproductive health in national health policies, developing benchmarks for adolescent well-being, and recognizing the rights of young girls to receive health information and services. These policies also need to be reinforced with training of health providers to ensure adolescent girls can access and use health services.

The familiar "reproductive health" language in this paragraph clearly points to providing contraception -- and probably abortion by legal means or otherwise -- for these extremely vulnerable young girls, an aim that sits oddly with the insistence on 18 as the age of marriage.

If it is so important that they do not marry, why not make it equally clear to their communities that girls and boys should abstain from sex? Why muddy the waters by teaching them that it is only the consequences of sex that matter, not uncommitted sex itself?

Difficult to do? One of the priorities on the list is changing community norms about child marriage. Surely the most important part of that is changing attitudes to child sex.