Child marriage devastates communities all over the world, with an estimated one-third of the world’s female population aged 18 and younger married off as brides. A horrific reality for millions of girls, child marriage involves painful lifetimes of gender-based violence, dangerous pregnancies, complicated childbirths, risks of obstetric fistula, illiteracy, and poverty.
Like organizations including Girls Not Brides, I believe that ending child marriage is key to accelerating progress toward achieving development on local and international scales. The perpetuation of child marriage interferes with the fulfillment of six out of eight Millennium Development Goals:
Goal 1: Eradicating extreme poverty and hunger
In common procedures for child marriage, prospective grooms offer a “bride price” to the bride’s parents to consent to him marrying their daughter. Typically, the bride’s parents accept the money hoping to escape difficult economic circumstances. Yet, the financial “gains” that families may reap are short-term, and cannot compensate for the long-term damage that child marriage incurs. A child bride does not receive opportunities for education and economic participation crucial to poverty alleviation. She and her family are locked in perpetual cycles of poverty, with hunger becoming a disastrous upshot, because food is unaffordable.
Goal 2: Achieving universal primary education
Often, married girls are prohibited from going to school – either by the law or by her husband. Accordingly, high incidences of child marriage are positively correlated with high school dropout rates. Social mores dictate that a child bride’s primary “responsibilities” are not to acquire knowledge and develop life skills in schools, but to bear children and tend to domestic activities. In certain societies, the younger the bride, the higher the price she fetches, incentivizing parents to not let their daughter start her primary education altogether.
Goal 3: Promoting gender equality and empowering women
Child marriage sees girls bearing the brunt of social isolation, sexual violence, and physical assault. Compared to women who marry as adults, child brides experience higher levels of domestic and sexual abuse, and the traumatic mental and emotional health consequences that ensue because they are at a formative stage of physical and psychological development. Husbands and their child wives do not have an equal stake in the marriage and reinforce antiquated gender roles, blockading equality and empowerment.
Goal 4: Reducing child mortality
When young girls get married and give birth, the health of their children deteriorates. Child mortality comes hand-in-hand with child marriage and child pregnancies; Girls Not Brides reports that “stillbirths and newborn death are 50% higher in mothers younger than 20 years than in women who give birth later”. Children of young brides also run greater risks of perinatal mortality (death as a fetus or neonate) and morbidity.
Goal 5: Improving maternal health
Child marriage is a major threat to maternal health; a child bride is unready physically and emotionally for childbearing and motherhood. Complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death among adolescent girls in developing societies, mainly because girls’ pelvises and birth canals are underdeveloped. Pregnancies among adolescent girls increase risks of obstructed labor, obstetric fistula, and urine or fecal incontinence.
Goal 6: Combatting HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
In many developing regions, the incidence of sexual intercourse involving female adolescents occurs within marriage. According to research from The University of Chicago’s Center for International Studies, child marriage is linked to increased risks of HIV/AIDS because young girls’ bodies are unready for the “physical trauma of intercourse”, and their genital tracts have not fully matured. Hence, when child brides are raped, vaginal tears and abrasions may occur, making them vulnerable to HIV. The author of the resource, Juliana Shulman, also notes that:
The pursuit of pregnancy […] discourages condom use. In fact, protection is often simply not an option as known mechanisms all require negotiation and participation of both partners in order to be protective. Furthermore, young, married girls are particularly unequipped to negotiate protection, even if they desire to.
The conflicts between child marriage and the MDGs outlined in this post tell us: If we want to accelerate progress toward achieving the MDGs, we must amplify our voices to educate others about the harms of child marriage. If we want to see girls realizing their dreams and reaching their full potential, we must take a stand against child marriage. If we hope to see more equitable and inclusive societies, we should join and further the movement to end child marriage.
I believe in the power of coalitions of passionate people to spark positive, sustainable change at the community level. I know that if we wrestle the deep-rooted social forces that barricade gender equality and women’s empowerment, we can make a difference in the lives of millions of women and girls.
To take action today, you can:
- Read Girls’ Globe’s posts on child marriage.
- Learn more about child marriage at Girls Not Brides, UNFPA, and ICRW, and spread the word about why child marriage should end.
- Take the Girl Summit Pledge!
- Join the conversation on Twitter using #EndChildMarriage and follow the Girl Summit tomorrow, July 22, 2014 using #GirlSummit.
- Donate to projects that support girls’ education in developing countries.
- Foster discussions with community leaders or government members on child marriage and the need to enforce a legal minimum marriage age.
- Encourage religious leaders to speak out against child marriage.
- Give families alternate economic incentives, leveraging microfinance and entrepreneurship opportunities.
Featured image credit to UNFPA Asia.