Early marriage affects millions of children through the world. It is widely practiced in the countries of South Asia where every year millions of girls-preteens and teens- become the wives of older men. Young girls are married when they are still children and as a result are denied fundamental human rights. Early marriage compromises their development and often results in early pregnancy and social isolation, with little education and poor vocational training reinforcing the gendered nature of poverty. Required to perform heavy amounts of domestic work, under pressure to demonstrate fertility, married girls and child mothers face constrained decision-making and reduced life choices. Both boys and girls are affected by child marriage but the issue impacts girls in far larger numbers, with more intensity—and is wide ranging.
Early marriage, better known as child marriage, is defined as marriage carried below the age of 18 years, “before the girl is physically, physiologically and psychologically ready to shoulder the responsibilities of marriage and child bearing”. Many factors interact to place a child at risk of marriage. Parents encourage the marriage of their daughters while they are still children in hopes that the marriage will benefit them both financially and socially, while also relieving financial burdens on the family. Strong correlations between a woman’s age at marriage and the level of education she achieves, the age at which she gives birth to her first child and the age of her husband have been well documented. Early marriage means also the individual becomes sexually active early, raising children while children themselves. The marriage of a young girl affects not only her life but that of the children she will bear.
Early marriage is by no means a new phenomenon. It is a socially established practice that has been carried on from generation to generation. This is despite the existence of international and regional instruments that all the States in South Asia have ratified. Governments in the region also settled upon 18 as the minimum legal age at marriage. However, they are often either unable to enforce existing laws, or rectify discrepancies between national laws and customary and religious laws. Most often, child marriage is considered as a family matter and governed by religion and culture, which ensure its continuity. It remains therefore a widely ignored violation of the rights of girls and women and exposes them to multiple risks, including to sexual abuse and exploitation.
Compiled from a study undertaken by Mira, B. AGHI, this paper examines early marriage in the region in order to offer information for analysis and discussion.
The Prevalence Of Early Marriage In South Asia
It is very difficult to get accurate data on the true extent of early marriages. This is because most marriages are not officially registered, and many parents resort to falsifying girls’ ages. Such acts are made easier in rural areas where birth certificates are often non-existent or not properly recorded. There is also very little data on girls married before the age of 15. Available data are often outdated and fail to provide adequate information. Although early marriage is said to be declining in many parts of the world, the total number of girls at risk or affected is very significant and cannot be ignored. It is estimated there are worldwide more than 51 million adolescent girls aged 15–19 who are married and bearing the burden of domestic responsibility and the risks associated with early sexual activity, including pregnancy. In South Asia in 2005, 48% (nearly 10 million) of young women were married before the age of 18.
Child marriage, 1987 – 2006.
(% of women 20-24 years of age that were married or in union before they were 18 years old) [pic]
Despite a shift towards later marriages in many parts of the world, in the countries of South Asia a majority of girls still marry before age 18 (65% in Bangladesh, 57% in Nepal, 54% in Afghanistan, and almost 50% in India). One problem in assessing the prevalence of early marriages is that many are unregistered and unofficial and hence, are not a part of any data collection system. Very little data exists on marriages of children under the age of 10, even less on those below that age.
Some countries do have data. According to Bangladesh’s demographic and health survey of 1996-1997, there are 28 million adolescents in Bangladesh, 13.7% of these are girls, and the survey reported that more than half the girls below 19 were married and 5% of 10-14 year old girls were married. Another survey of women 25-29 years old reported that in Bangladesh 81% were married before the age of 18. The lowest age at marriage is to be found in the western and southern parts of Bangladesh – specifically those adjoining India. In India, more than 57 per cent of girls are reported to get married before they turn 18.
According to the Reproductive and Child Health District Level Household Survey, 28% girls overall, with 34.5% in rural and 13% in urban areas, are being married before they turned 18. According to a Rapid Household survey conducted across the country, 58.9% women in Bihar were married before the age of 18, 55.8% in Rajasthan, 54.9% in West Bengal, 53.8 % in Utter Pradesh, and 53.2% in Madhya Pradesh. National Family Health Survey data suggests that the median age for marriage in India is 16.4 years. This survey also found that 65% of the girls are married by the time they are 18.
There are additional surveys like one in 1993 which reported that in the Indian state of Rajasthan, on 5,000 women 56% had married before age 15, and of these, 17% were married before they were 10. Another report indicated that nearly 14% of the girls in India’s largest state (Uttar Pradesh) are married between the ages of 10-14 years, whereas in the central province of Madhya Pradesh, 11% of urban and 16.4% of rural girls are married between the ages of 10-14 years.
In Nepal, the law has helped in increasing the age at marriage. However, the data which included female marriages at all ages showed that ethnicity is the major factor of age at marriage in Nepal. The ethnic groups are mostly concentrated in the Terai region, which borders India, and where the cultural norms and practices are highly influenced by the culture of north India. In contrast to other groups, especially in the mountain region, women belonging to the Terai groups are generally confined to farming; they exercise comparatively less control over the economic resources and decision-making.
The most notable data from Nepal is 83.1% of girls of some ethnic groups marry before they are 15 years old. 79.6% Muslim girls marry before they are 15 years old. 69.7% girls in the mountainous and hilly regions marry at the age of 15 whereas 55.7% in rural Nepal marry before they turn 15. Early
marriage is more common in Surkhet district of mid-western Nepal. One of the findings of the study is that higher caste girls do not feel the pressure to marry at a very young age and while they are in primary school. But when they reach 13 years, pressure is put on them especially if they fail their school exams. If they are doing well their parents will often let them continue with their studies. Lower caste girls have much higher pressure and less choice.
A survey of adults 25-29 years old revealed that in Pakistan 37% of the girls were married before the legal age, which at the time was16. In Pakistan, as in other countries of South Asia, early marriage is more common in rural areas. Also people living in rural areas observe traditions more closely than those who live in urban areas.
Causes Of Early Marriage
Many reasons are given by parents and guardians to justify child marriage. Economic reasons often underpin these decisions which are directly linked to poverty and the lack of economic opportunities for girls in rural areas. Girls are either seen as an economic burden or valued as capital for their exchange value in terms of goods, money or livestock. A combination of cultural, traditional and religious arguments also justifies child marriage. The fear and stigma attached to premarital sex and bearing children outside marriage, and the associated family honor, are often seen as valid reasons for the actions that families take. Finally, many parents tend to curtail the education of their girls and marry them off, due to fear of exposure to sexual violence and abuse encountered.
Early marriage as a strategy for economic reasons
Poverty is one of the major factors underpinning early marriage. In many of the cases, the families are in poverty and one less daughter is one less mouth to feed. Poor families may regard young girls as an economic burden and the practice of early marriage, as an act of unburdening and a coping strategy. When poverty is acute, a young girl’s presence in the house is felt as unbearable and her marriage to a much older or even elderly man who can pay a very high price may be seen in her interest. Child marriage is valued as an economic coping strategy which reduces the costs of raising daughters. In this sense, poverty becomes a primary reason for child marriage because of perceived benefits to the family and the daughter.
|Ethnicity/culture has emerged as the most complex reason for girls’ early | |marriages. In fact at some places like the Terai region in Nepal, where | |the cultural norms and practices are highly influenced by the culture of | |north India, it has emerged even stronger than the socio-economic | |factors. It has been observed that ethnicity affects not only the age | |of marriage but the timing of family formation and entry into motherhood. |
Marriage arrangements and requirements, such as dowry payments in parts of South Asia where parents of the young woman are obliged to give gifts to the spouse and his family, perpetuate child marriages. This is because the dowry requirement often increases with the age and the education level of the girl. Additionally, poor families tend to marry off girls at the same time to help reduce the burden of high marriage ceremony expenses.
However, child brides are often more likely to experience domestic violence and least likely to take action against this abuse. The majority of affected girls become condemned to a life of financial and social insecurity. This is a real paradox for many parents, given that they marry off their daughters at a young age in the belief that this will enhance the girl’s and the family’s security. Poverty ultimately fuels child marriage, which in turn perpetuates the feminization of poverty.
In many villages that practice child marriage in Tamil Nadu State in India for example, girls are married off before they attain puberty because of the social stigma the community attaches to marriage after puberty. Many such marriages end in divorce. In case there is a large age’s difference, the girls become widows at a young age. Custom forbids divorced or widowed women to remarry, further impoverishing them. Entrenched community norms and myths clearly help to perpetuate the practice of child marriage and related poverty.
Son preference is very strong in many communities in South Asia, which may not be unrelated to the expenses involved when marrying off a daughter. The rising costs of marriage ceremonies force many families to marry their daughters at the same time to reduce costs. Boys forced into marriage early may also suffer financially. Economic responsibilities can place heavy burdens on them and curtail their education sooner than they might want. However, while boys can leave their wives at their parents’ homes and seek employment opportunities elsewhere, this option is not available to the majority of young wives.
Marriage alliances and traditions
Often marriage arrangements are made between families for dynastic, business, property or conflict resolutions. In Pakistan, India and Nepal, children may be betrothed or even married while toddlers or well below the age of 10. This custom is a means of consolidating powerful relations between families, making deals over land or other property, or settling disputes in the way routinely conducted between royal houses and aristocratic families throughout history. It may be a way of maintaining or fostering business ties with them. It may also be arranged as apart of the deal to settle a feud between two families.
Early marriage as a way to ensure the protection of girls
Early marriage is also one way to ensure that a wife is “protected” or placed firmly under male control; that she is submissive to her husband and works hard for her in-laws’ household; that the children she bears are ‘legitimate’ and that bonds of affection between couples do not undermine the family unit. It has been observed that in child marriages there is invariably a large gap between married women and their husbands—between 7-9 years. The customary age difference helps to preserve the traditional cultural pattern of an older husband dominating a much younger wife.
Social pressure appears to play a significant role in the girl getting married early. If girls remain unmarried by 15, neighbors, villagers and relatives begin to doubt her chastity and health. Parents are under huge pressure not to give a chance to the society to pass any aspersion on their girls.
Early marriage is often a way of ensuring that the daughter is not at risk of losing her virginity in an irregular sexual encounter. For many communities, the loss of virginity in girls before marriage is the worst shame that can be brought upon a family. The desire to protect a girl’s virginity drives many parents to force their daughters into marriage at an extremely young age. For this reason and to control girl’s sexuality, girls are married to prevent pre-marital sex or pregnancy. Once it is known in the village that a girl had pre-marital sexual relationship, it could be quite difficult to find a suitable boy who will be willing to marry her. Therefore parents willingly/unwillingly arrange early marriages to avoid such unpleasant situations.
In rural communities, fetching water and firewood are usually chores undertaken by young girls. There is frequently a serious fear of their being raped. The rape will be devastating with enormous implications for the girl. In many communities the rape is not considered to be a crime against a girl but against her father, husband, or brothers.
Situations of insecurity and acute poverty, particularly during disasters such as war, famine or the HIV and AIDS epidemic, can prompt parents to resort to child marriage as a protective mechanism or survival strategy. Among some populations which have been disrupted by war (Afghanistan), marrying a young daughter to a warlord or someone who can look after her may be a strategy for physical security or family support. In the worst cases, girls are abducted or kidnapped by armed militia or rebels and forced into temporary marriages which amount to “a combination of child prostitution and pure slavery.” Displaced populations living in refugee camps may feel unable to protect their daughters from rape, and so marriage to a warlord or other authority figure may provide improved protection.
Consequences Of Early Marriage
The consequences of child marriage are often far wider than just their impact on the individual children affected. The marriage of children has negative effects on families and communities. The practice thrives on poverty and impacts adversely on a country’s health and education sector.
Young girls are forced to marry men they have never met before and who may be many years older than they are. Once married, they are responsible for looking after their husbands, the house, and the children they give birth to while still children themselves. This is one of the reasons that offspring born too early in their mothers’ lives are at increased risk of illness and death. These girls often have little knowledge about the responsibilities of being a wife and no information about sex and childbirth. Early forced sex as a violation of rights where a girl is married has not been recognized as a form of sexual abuse except where warlords or traffickers have recruited girls as sexual slaves.
Early marriage is associated with a number of poor social and physical outcomes for young women and their offspring. They attain lower schooling, lower social status in their husbands’ families, have less reproductive control, and suffer higher rates of maternal mortality and domestic violence. They are often forced out of school without an education, their health is affected because their bodies are too immature to give birth.
|Child marriage impedes the Millennium Development Goals | |(agreed by governments and the international community in | |September 2000). | | | |Goal 1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. | |Goal 2: Achieve universal primary education. | |Goal 3: Promote gender equality and empower women. | |Goal 4: Reduce child mortality. | |Goal 5: Improve maternal health. | |Goal 6: Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases. |
Health and related outcomes
The younger the boy or the girl is at the time of marriage, the worse is the abuse of child and human rights, both on grounds of lack of consent and on grounds of forced early sex. However, the implications for the females are much more severe. The younger the girl at the time of her first sexual relations – with early sex much more frequent and less likely to be consensual within marriage than outside marriage – the greater the chance of severe pain, physical damage, and of birthing complications and injury.
Pregnancy and childbirth
It is common sense to assume that girls who marry before 18 will usually have more children. Early child-bearing has long been seen as a risk to maternity, contributing significantly to large families. Since girls who are married young have a large number of child bearing years, they are more prone to miscarriage, infant death, malnutrition, cervical cancer, sterility, and maternal death. Even when girls are closer to the age of 18 but not yet that age, the risk remains. Girls between age 15 and 19 are twice as likely to die of pregnancy-related reasons as women between age 20 and 24. Child marriage is the leading cause of young women between the ages of 15 and 24 dying during pregnancy.
Percentage of women age 15- 19 who have begun childbearing
Selected countries in South Asia, 2004-2006
Not only the mothers but offspring born too early in their mothers’ lives are at increased risk of illness and death. The babies of child brides are sicker, weaker and many do not survive childhood. Evidence shows that infant mortality among children of very young mothers is almost two times higher than among those of older peers. The health problems linked to early marriage not only affect the pregnant mother but also continue after child birth. Complications are more likely during pregnancy and birth purely because of the mother’s young age.
A large proportion of reproductive and sexual health concerns of adolescent girls and women root from early marriage and early pregnancy. In the context of reproductive health girl spouses face well-acknowledged risks. These include the problem of giving birth when the pelvis and birth canal are still under-developed which leads to an increased risk of complications during delivery including protracted labor. Mothers aged less than 15 are especially vulnerable to fistulae – relentless pressure from baby’s skull can damage the birth canal causing breakages in the wall. A girl or a woman with this condition ─ irreversible without surgery ─ is not only in constant pain but will be socially ostracized and may well be divorced because of this.
The perils of child marriage are not limited to only health complications during pregnancy and delivery period but in many cases during post-natal period as well. Because of the prolapsed uterus, they suffer from backaches, experience difficulties while walking, working and sitting for a long time. At times they had to give birth even after prolapsed uterus and this made the situation worse for them. 
Child brides cannot negotiate the terms of sex with husbands who are usually older and have had previous sexual partners. They cannot insist on fidelity or condom use. Research in India (Calcutta) revealed that almost half of the women patients in the hospital interviewed had been married at or below the age of 15 with the youngest being married at 7 years. This age group has one of the highest rates of vulnerability to sexual violence in marriage, second only to those whose dowry had not been paid. The women had forced sexual intercourse before menstruation had started. The sex was early and painful and many still continued to be forced into sexual activity by their husbands. Although young girls had made their husbands aware of their unwillingness to have sex or of pain during sex, in 80% of these cases, the rapes continued.
Increased risks of contracting sexually transmitted diseases and HIV
Early marriage threatens girls’ health and the health of their children and thwarts efforts to combat HIV/AIDS. Of substantial consequences, yet largely ignored, is the fact that the majority of the sexually active girls aged 15-19 in South Asia are married and these adolescent girls tend to have higher rates of HIV infection than their sexually active unmarried peers. Early sexual activity within marriage is even more likely to expose young people to sexually transmitted infections than sex outside marriage.
Crossing the threshold into marriage greatly intensifies sexual exposure via unprotected sex, often with an older partner, who by virtue of his age has an elevated risk of being HIV positive. This dramatic rise in the frequency of unprotected sex is driven by not only the implication of infidelity or distrust associated with certain forms of contraception such as condoms, but often also by a strong desire to become pregnant. Demographic and health survey data reveals that on an average 80% of unprotected sex encounters among adolescent girls occurred within marriage. Not only are married adolescents girls often isolated within their new households and from external public and private support but their needs have not been prioritized or sometimes even considered in current reproductive health initiatives. Moreover many of the most common HIV/AIDS policies and messages are not appropriate for them.
Denial of education
It is believed that investment in a girl’s education is wasted when she simply going to be married and work in another household. Girls reported that even if married girls are allowed to pursue their education, they cannot continue for too long because of the varied burdens imposed on her by early childbearing and the chores in the house. An important reason why girls in South Asia do not go to school or are withdrawn at puberty is for the assumption of domestic duties and confinement at home as prelude to marriage. Lack of exposure outside the immediate home environment means lower self-esteem, less sense of identity as an independent person with an independent mind, reduced socialization with peers and non-family adults, and considerably less knowledge of what early marriage entails.
There is a clear connection between early marriage and low educational attainment. Early marriage puts the young girl at a disadvantage by the loss of educational opportunity. Often girls are not allowed to go to school which diminishes her opportunity to acquire critical life skills. Children benefit as much as their families, since a school-going child has been observed to be an agent of change in rural societies. A girl who is educated will most likely educate her daughter and thus establishes an inter-generational trend of educating girls. Besides, the correlation between the number of years of a girl’s schooling and the postponement of marriage is shown to be firmly established by demographic and fertility studies36. A one year postponement of marriage increases schooling by 0.32 years and literacy by 5-10%.
Courtney from Study Moose
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