Child marriage is a serious form of human rights violation affecting young girls globally. It was estimated 10 million girls under the age of 18 get married every year (Bruce & Clark 2004) and according to Population Council Analysis of United Nations Country Data on Marriage (2002), more than 100 million girls will get married in the next decade if the current pattern persists. Girls who are disproportionately the most affected by this inhumane practice suffer tremendously. It is unreasonable such practice that robs away a girl’s childhood can exist, considering the devastating effects such as physical and psychological damages, severe health consequences and denial of personal development.
1.1 Physical and Psychological Damages
Many young girls who are being forced into marriage face abuse and violence as their daily reality, yet most of them believe that a husband is justified in beating his wife (Jenson & Thornton 2003). For example, in Kenya, 36 percent of girls married before 18 consider the action of a husband beating his wife is acceptable as compared to 20 percent of married women (UNICEF 2005). Prolonged violence behaviours towards child brides including coercive sex, verbal abuse, slapping and beatings cause them to be emotionally affected and undergo post-traumatic stress. According to Khan and Lynch (1997), such symptoms are like feeling of hopelessness, helplessness and severe depression. Young married girls are extremely vulnerable and have little power in relation to their husbands and in-laws. They are often treated as domestic slaves to work in their in-law’s households. As much as young married girls are desperate to run away from their brutal marriages, they are often tied down with reasons that oblige them to stay. Most often than not is because of economic pressures and other social circumstances.
There are those who seek for avenues to leave their spouses, there are also those who are abandoned, divorced or led into widowhood. They suffer a loss of status and ostracized by society with additional discrimination, for example being denied of property rights, as in many cultures divorced, abandoned or widowed women are often looked down upon (Tamunoimama 2012). They usually end up living in poverty as they have no financial support and bear the responsibility of raising their children on their own.
The high rates of Vesico-Vaginal Fistula (VVF) amongst young married girls is one of the reasons why child marriage is linked to wife abandonment. Sexual reproductive organs of the child brides that are not fully developed cause them to endure very prolonged labour. The relentless pressure from the baby’s skull breaks the walls of the birth canal and leads to uncontrollable leakage from the bladder into the vagina. They are usually perceived as unclean and often abandoned or divorced by their spouses. In Nigeria, around 150,000 women with VVF, 80 to 90 percent of them are divorced by their husbands; in Niger Republic, VVF is the reason for 63.3 percent of all divorce cases (Tamunoimama 2012).
In many countries, young girls are married off to older men of twice their age, because their parents believe that it is the best way to ensure their daughters are protected when being placed firmly under a male’s control. Influenced by negative social and religious norms, girls are married early to older men in the belief that a husband will provide a safeguard against her ‘immoral’ or ‘inappropriate’ behaviour (Senderowitz 1995). Consequently, when the girl is still young, their spouses died, leaving her with the sole responsibility on taking care her children. For some traditions, girls are not allowed to remarry and her families are also unlikely to accept her back once she has become widowed (UNICEF 2001).
Even when a child bride feels able to challenge and leave her marriage, it usually takes her years to do so. Her families will cut her off from their lives because it is believed that running away from a marriage brings shame upon the family. This leaves the girl even more alone than before (The Effects of Early Marriage Cause and Effect Essay 2004). It will contribute to a lack of confidence and low self esteem in the young married girls, plunging them into poverty especially when they are under-educated and has few income-generating skills (Tamunoimama 2012).
1.2 Severe Health Consequences
Girls and woman who marry early and with little or no education background often lack of knowledge and have limited awareness of their rights to negotiate safer sex, including the use of condom (Plan UK 2011). In addition to the age difference between the child bride and the husband alongside with her low economic status, it is almost impossible for her to demand fidelity or enjoy the freedom of movement. Barriers like distance, fear, expenses or the need for permission from their spouses or in -laws to access health services deteriorate the risks of maternal complications and mortality for young mothers (Tamunoimama 2012).
According to UNICEF (2001), girls aged between 15 and 19 are twice as likely to die giving birth as compared to women over 20 years old; whereas for girls aged between 10 to 14, it is five times greater the risk. Young married girls face considerable physical pain associated with sexual intercourse as their sexual organs are not fully developed and matured (Alemu 2008). Pregnancy-related deaths including heavy bleeding, fistula, infection, Anaemia, and Eclampsia, are the leading cause of mortality for 15 to 19 year-old girls (married and unmarried) worldwide (Tamunoimama 2012). Fistula conditions like vesico-vaginal fistula (VVF) and recto-vaginal fistula (RVF) are permanent without surgical intervention to reseal the tissues. Many women have to endure with this condition for the rest of their lives, as such intervention may not be sought or may be hard to access (Tamunoimama 2012). WHO (2010) estimates there are two million women suffering from fistulas and for each year, there is another addition of 50,000 to 100,000 new cases of fistulas, many of which go untreated.
Even though parents see early marriage or child marriage, as a method to protect their daughters from HIV/AIDS, future spouses may engage in unprotected sexual relations with other partners and already be infected (Tamunoimama 2012). Child brides are more vulnerable to HIV infection, due to the physiological immaturity of their sexual organs. A girl who has not reached puberty face serious risk on being infected by HIV/AIDS, because her vagina is not well lined with protective cells and her cervix may be penetrated easily (Alemu 2008). According to Clark (2004), a small scale research done in Kenya and Zambia shows that among 15 to 19 year-old girls who are sexually active, getting married increased their chances of HIV by more than 75 percent. Girls who are of lower status in society and lack of autonomy cannot have a say when to engage in sexual relations and when to bear a child, especially if it is a young virgin, she would be under pressure to become pregnant in the first year of her marriage.
1.3 Denial of Personal Development
Education is one of the largest losses a girl has to face when she is married off at a young age. Her opportunities to develop as an individual is limited as she needs to bear the burden of being a wife and a mother. Most of the child brides, who are forced to drop out of school during the preparation of marriage or at the point of union and transfer to their in-laws house, as badly as they want to return to school, they are denied of their rights to education. Older husbands and even fathers of young wives believe that the role of females are merely to stay home and undertake household and child-care duties. They fear that education undermines cultural practices and teaches the girl to reject tradition (Bayisenge 2009). The following quote illustrate well the case:
“At the age of about 14 years, my father sent me to my uncle in Adagbira near Binaba so that he could let his wives “train me” for marriage. He believed that if I continued to go to school, I would be a “spoilt girl” and no man would agree to marry me. Being a “spoilt girl” meant that I would be too wise to marry back in his village where he could get my dowry.” (Interview with Ateni Adongo, Womankind,1999).
Apart from that, parents of a child bride perceive education as an investment wasted because she is simply going to get married and it will only benefit her husband’s household. The child bride stand even little chance in hope that her husband and in-laws would invest their scarce resources in her education. In rural areas, secondary education is only attainable at a far distance from home, leading to a fear in parents that this may expose the girl to risks on premarital sex and unwanted pregnancy (Tamunoimama 2012).
Child brides also find it difficult to return to school, because even the school itself has a policy of refusing married or pregnant girls to attain education. They believe that it will set a bad example to other students and destroy the reputation of the school for going against traditional beliefs. Besides, young married girls are unable to cope up and adapt with the school environment which includes rules, time tables and physical conditions, at the same time juggling their duties as wives and mothers. This further reduces the chances of them to enjoy the rights to education, which they require for personal development and contribution to the future well-being of their family and society.
Early marriage was considered the main challenge to achieving universal primary education (MDG 2) and promoting gender equality (MDG 3) for girls and boys in rural communities (Plan Egypt 2010). It is not only a lost opportunity for the girls affected, but has a wider reach of repercussions for their own children and society (ICRW 2006). Young married girls, being denied of education are powerless in regards of deciding the size of their families, demanding the use of contraception and healthcare needs of their children. They are not well informed and knowledgeable about sexual relations, their bodies and reproduction, furthermore aggravated by the cultural silence surrounding these subjects (Tamunoimama 2012). With a low level of education and life skills, child brides face an increase of vulnerability to abuse and poor health, and therefore acute poverty and create a massive knock-on negative effect to the community.
Marriage is regarded as a moment of celebration and a milestone in an adult life, but girls as young as five being married off to older men, forced to drop out of school to carry the heavy burden of being a wife and a mother is equivalent to being condemned a death sentence on their bright future. Article 16 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) states that men and women of full age are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution and marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending parties. Therefore child marriage is considered as a violation of human rights and must be viewed within a context of force and coercion, because valid consent of the child is absent – and also often disregarded (Kumar 2008).
Early marriage or child marriage is one of the ills that have eaten deep into the marrows of the third world countries, with Niger (76.6%), Chad (71.5%) and Bangladesh (68.7%) leading the top countries with highest rates of child marriage (ICRW 2005). It is a deadly curse in the modern society, with all the consequences that come along with it, including high rate of maternal mortality and morbidity, violence and abuse, reinforce cycle of poverty and many more. It stands in direct conflict with the objectives of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), (Mathur & Malhotra 2003) as it threatens the achievement of the first six goals respectively, eradicating extreme poverty and hunger; achieving universal primarily education; promoting gender equality and empowering women; reducing child mortality; improving maternal health; combating HIV/AIDs, malaria and other diseases (UN 2007).
In conclusion, different parties like governments, parents, schools, medias, NGOs, by and large, everyone else that is in the community should come together to trickle this challenging phenomenon and ban this from being an acceptable cultural practice. Actions to restore the rights of those already married should go hand in hand with preventive actions in protecting the rights of unmarried girls because to ensure a good start of their life, they need education instead of being trapped in a child betrothal.