Child Marriage

Can you imagine getting married or divorced at the tender age of ten? The above is not from a fiction but the true story of Nujood Ali (now 15) from Yemen, one of the authors of I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced, and now the famous anti-child-marriage rebel in the world. She is home with her family and attending school again. Unfortunately, there are millions of untold stories similar to or worse than Nujood's in our world today.


Who holds the fate of these girls?

What

For most people, marriage is an important and a celebrated moment in life. Choosing when and who to marry is one of life's most important decisions. In Hong Kong, the average age of first marriage for male and female are 31 and 29 respectively. Child marriage or "blind marriage" is almost unheard of in this city. However, millions of girls worldwide are asked or forced to marry at young age. For these child brides, entering into a marriage is no different from stepping onto a path of pain and suffering.

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Different international human rights instruments provide protection against child marriage. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that marriage should be "entered only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses". In the Convention on the Elimination on All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), it is recommended that marriage before the age of 18 should not be allowed since children have yet attained "full maturity and capacity to act".

Despite a nearly universal commitment to end child marriage, there are still 13.5 million girls getting married every year before their 18th birthday. Most of the world's child spouses live in South Asia (45%) and in West and Central Africa (42%). Nearly one in three girls in developing countries (excluding China) will marry before the age of 18. One in nine is made to marry before they reach the age of 15, when the consequences of child marriage are most harmful.

Child marriage is a fundamental breach of children's rights and a brutal curtailment of childhood. It forces girls and boys to take up responsibilities for which they lack the emotional and physical maturity. The grave impacts of early marriage on the lives of child spouses can range from reproductive health complications, high infant or child mortality, to domestic violence and extreme poverty. These costs fall not only on the child spouses alone, but also at multiple levels including families, communities, societies and nations.

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Impact

Health

Reproductive health issue is one of the most fatal consequences of child marriage. When girls are neither physically nor emotionally ready for pregnancy, they are more prone to pregnancy and childbirth complications. High infant or child mortality rate are often resulted. Among the disabilities associated with early childbirth is obstetric fistula, an injury which leaves girls in constant pain, vulnerable to infection, incontinence, and often shunned by their husbands, families and communities. Although this injury is surgically correctable, girls or women in poor developing countries have little or even no access to such treatment.

Early marriage also raises the risk of contracting HIV or other sexually transmitted infections. Girls usually have little or no say in protecting herself against pregnancy or diseases. Few have access to reliable contraception and reproduction health advice. The pressure to conceive as soon as possible after marriage is high for young brides as they try to prove their worth and secure their social status.


Violence

Girls getting married at young age are much more likely to experience domestic violence and abuse. When they should be enjoying their childhood, child brides are forced to take up responsibilities that they are unprepared for. In cases where they fail to meet their husbands’ household and sexual demands and expectations, they might end up being beaten or raped by their husbands. Worse still, young brides are more likely to believe that these violent acts by their husbands are justified.

Most victims stay silent and never seek help. Many girls said they did not perceive what they experienced as a form of violence or did not think the abuse was a problem.

Denial of education

While lack of education is one of the push factors of child marriage, denial of education is also a direct consequence of child marriage. A girl’s level of education affects the likelihood of becoming a child bride. From a study done by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), it shows that girls who are poor, have little or no education and live in rural areas are most likely to marry or enter into a union before 18.

Girls who marry too young are less likely to finish school and have fewer economic opportunities in their future. In many cases, parents or husbands forbid the girls to continue schooling as soon as they are betrothed or married as education is considered unnecessary at such stages. Even if married girls are lucky enough to stay in school, there are regulations in some schools that demand those who become pregnant shortly after marriage to withdraw from education.

If girls are able to stay in school and avoid early marriage, the benefits are widely felt. Based on the primary evidence gathered by World Vision staff in Niger, the positive impacts of girls’ education are felt in some communities where educated mothers tend to raise healthier children. Education can be one of the most powerful tools to enable girls to avoid early marriage and fulfil their potential.

Cycle of poverty

Child marriage creates vicious and intergeneration cycles of poverty. A girl who marries early is a child thrown into adulthood. Early child-bearing puts great pressure on young mothers both physically and psychologically. Having children may decrease already scarce resources in a poor family.

Withdrawal from education leaves girls with very limited knowledge and skills that consequently affect their livelihood opportunities. While child brides are more likely to have more children than women who marry later, they are less able to provide for their children.

Early marriage ultimately leads to children raising children, compromising the well-being of both generations. An impoverished young mother, inexperienced and untrained in child-rearing, is at high risk to have children who are malnourished and unhealthy.

It would be very hard to lift already impoverished families out of poverty when inexperienced young parents are burdened by economic difficulties, family tension, childrearing and household responsibilities. Not only do girls bear the social, economic and health costs of early marriage; society pays a price too.

Where

Child marriage among girls is most common in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, and the 10 countries with the highest rates are found in these two regions. Niger has the highest overall prevalence of child marriage in the world. However, Bangladesh has the highest rate of marriage involving girls under age 15. South Asia is home to almost half of all child brides worldwide. (UNICEF, 2014)

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Incidence of early marriage tend to be high where poverty, birth and death rates are high; civil conflict is common; and overall levels of development (including healthcare, schooling and employment) remains relatively low. Most of the 10 countries with the highest rates of early marriage are considered fragile states or at high risk of natural disasters. In the UN Human Development Index (HDI), countries ranked 142 or below are classified as regions with low human development. We can see from the map that all of the 10 listed countries belong to those regions.

Why

Poverty

Some developing communities see marriage as a way out of poverty. Parents who cannot provide for the basic needs of their children may give a young daughter away in marriage to lessen the family’s burden and to ensure she is supported. Conflict or natural disasters are high times for girls to be married away. However, in most cases, the practice of child marriage has only left the already impoverished worse off.

Still widely practised in India today, the bride’s family has to pay the groom’s family a dowry. Some communities allow lower dowry for younger brides. This custom indirectly encourages impoverished parents to give a girl away early before she becomes a greater economic burden.

The payment goes the opposite way in some sub-Saharan African communities. The bride’s family will receive a “bride price” in the form of cattle from the groom or his family. Sadly, some parents view committing their daughters to marriages as an opportunity to increase household wealth.

Concerns about protection of girls

On the other hand, as a bride’s worth is linked to her virginity in many cultures, parents would try their best to ensure their girls do not bring dishonour on the family by getting pregnant out of wedlock.Many parents in fragile states expect a married life will shield girls from sexual violence and other attacks. Some genuinely believe that by pledging their daughters to a regular male guardian, the young brides will have a secured future. Significant evidence from countries like Kenya and Uganda indicate that parents made desperate by hunger and extreme poverty are marrying off their daughters at increasingly young ages in the hope of safeguarding them from harm.


Tradition


Cultural or religious traditions are powerful drivers of early marriage. The practice of dowry perpetuates the view that girls are an economic burden on families. Harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM) in some African contexts are also linked to early marriage. For example, the Maasai communities of Kenya consider a girl more mature after FGM has been performed to her, usually between ages 7-14. The girl is then quickly married in order to fetch a dowry.

Gender discrimination


Girls are less valued than boys and are seen as a burden in many traditional cultures. These girls tend to have low self-image and are often discouraged from participation. Many parents expect their daughters to stay at home and consider girl education unnecessary.

The devaluation of girls reinforces many of the driving factors for early marriage, such as lack of education. In some culture, an educated and independent woman is perceived as a threat to society and to men. Entrenched gender roles make it difficult for a girl to imagine life beyond what traditional cultures expect of her.

Lack of Education

Uneducated parents are most likely to follow traditional practices and conservative gender norms. They tend to be ignorant of laws prohibiting child marriage and of the serious health risks that early sexual debut and pregnancy pose for girls. They are also more likely to see female education as wasteful rather than a sound investment.Child marriage appears to be most prevalent in regions where a large proportion of girls are out of school or whose education has been stalled. Many girls are kept out of classes to do chores and take care of siblings.


How We Help

If the current trend continues, 16.5 million girls will be married by 2030. The lives of these girls could be forever changed by their forced marriages.

To stop and prevent child marriage, we must gain a better understanding of the issue and take actions accordingly. Ending child marriage is critical to the achievement of most of the Millennium Development Goals.


World Vision in Project Countries

1. Advocacy

In Bangladesh, where the rate of child marriage is highest in Asia, World Vision has launched a campaign with the national human right commission to advocate against the harmful practice. A series of project have been introduced in the following areas:

  • Strengthening local child protection system by lobbying with the government to amend the existing child marriage and dowry laws
  • Mobilising youth, parents and leaders to change discriminatory gender norms
  • Increase awareness and counseling of families; encourage actions to stop child marriage in their communities
  • Advocate the message through school and community programmes, educational performances by travelling theatre and music troupes

2. Education and empowerment

  • Besides helping children get formal education at school, World Vision also promotes the set up of children’s clubs or forum, where children learn about their rights and discuss the issues they face, such as child marriage, and ways to tackle them. There have been a number of successful cases where children club members actively stopped child marriages in their communities.
  • At self-help groups sponsored by World Vision in India and other countries, women who married young meet regularly to maintain a support network. They also receive training in areas like healthcare, family planning and financial skills. In India, World Vision’s education programme has seen positive results in reducing child marriage when barriers to girls’ education are addressed along with dowry issues.

3. Livelihood

Provision of life skills training, employment or entrepreneur opportunities to girls and community members have been proven effective in lifting people out of poverty. For example, our microfinance subsidiary VisionFund, offers the entrepreneurial poor with financial services that help them establish or expand a self-sustaining business. This kind of assistance can help prevent cases where parents “need” to sell their daughter into an unwanted marriage due to poverty.

World Vision in Hong Kong

Education and Advocacy

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