Making the case against child marriage
Are 11-year-olds ready for PG 13 movies? Are 13-year-olds mature enough to run a household? Are 10-year-olds old enough for marriage, sex, and motherhood? Have they had enough education and are they prepared to support their families? Too young, you say? How about 15 or 17? Is that old enough? If you’re an American parent, the answer to these questions is likely to be “No way!” If you’re the parent of girl in a developing country, the answer isn’t always so clear.
In fact, 10 million girls in developing countries get married every year, usually without having any choice about who or when they marry. One in three is under 18, one in seven under 15, one in nine is between 10 and 14 and it's not uncommon at all for girls younger than 10 to be forced into marriages with grown men. That’s 25,000 girls a day subjected to marriages almost guaranteed to end their educations, produce early pregnancies, increase their chances of contracting HIV/AIDS, hepatitis and other sexually transmitted diseases, double their chances of being victimized by domestic violence and cut off any hope they’ll ever escape the cycle of poverty.
Child brides are neither physically nor emotionally ready for marriage and are at far greater risk of experiencing disabling and life-threatening pregnancy complications than adult brides. In fact, it’s the leading cause of death for teenage girls. How’s that for a wedding present?
When you look at child marriage through an American perspective, it’s hard to fathom why parents would allow it. It’s inconceivable that forcing young girls to marry older men is culturally acceptable. But that demonstrates how little most of us really know about how deep, desperate, poverty ingrains cultural norms.
Child marriage is illegal in most countries (as are rape and wife-beating), but that doesn’t stop it from happening. In most cases, it’s poverty, tradition and ignorance that promote child marriages. Extreme poverty is almost always accompanied by illiteracy, lack of education, gender inequity and hunger and often prevalent in cultures anchored by strong religious and patriarchal power. Poverty drives parents into accepting bride prices for their daughters because that money might save their family from disease and starvation. It might be enough to send a son to school – a son who might then find work to support the family. Poverty fuels parents’ hope that their daughter might have enough to eat and a better life at her husband’s house.
It’s culture that says, “We’ve always done things that way, so it must be OK.” Think civil rights, child labor, slavery… It’s culture that makes it acceptable to continue destructive practices, even when they damage society as a whole. In cultures where girls have no rights, value or purpose other than as property, sex objects, household help and mothers, where girls have no other vision for their futures, what else are a girl and her family to do? But culture is made by people and culture CAN change if people want it to. In this case, we have to come together to understand the underlying factors so change can happen.
What do young girls think about getting married? Many don’t see it coming. One day they’re schoolgirls and the next, they’re married and dreams for a bright future are over. Others grow up expecting to marry young and don’t see any alternatives. But are these girls fundamentally different than girls in other cultures? No and for the most part, getting married, having sex and babies is just as horrifying to them as to girls in our own culture. And no matter where she lives, early marriage produces the same results:
- When a young girl gets married, she drops out of school, quits working and has children.
- Children raised by uneducated, unemployed mothers usually grow up to be uneducated and unemployed too.
- Adolescent girls are five times more likely to die in childbirth than adult women.
- The children she leaves behind are 3-10 times more likely to die within the next two years.
- When a mother is under 18, her baby is 60 per cent more likely to die in its first year of life than a baby born to a mother older than 19.
But just as child marriage can help perpetuate poverty, investing in girls can help end child marriage and yield a variety of benefits for those girls AND their communities. When girls stay in school, they’re six times less likely to become child brides. They have fewer children and those children tend to be healthier and better educated. They’re more likely to develop job skills that contribute to the family and community’s economy. When girls delay marriage, they suffer less domestic violence, fewer childbirth complications and are more able to navigate safe sex practices to avoid getting sick and spreading disease.
What can you do to prevent child marriage?
- CARE, is among the oldest and most successful humanitarian organizations working in 84 countries and operating 1105 poverty-fighting projects that reach 122 million people. They’re asking people to sign their petition telling Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to do what she can to help end child marriage and asking governmental leaders to commit to making political and financial investments for girls a priority.
- Girls Not Brides asks supporters to advocate for girls by using their voices to support legislature benefitting girls and women in developing countries. Sign up to become part of Girls Not Brides’ community here. They’ll email you when they need you to call, visit or contact your Representatives.
- Take part in International Day of the Girl activities in your area. Find out what events are already going on or get information about how to host your own event by logging on to 10x10, an organization focused on improving girls’ lives through education.
- Help shine a light on girls just being girls! Photo contest
- Join us on October 11th for a Google hangout discussion with Girls Not Brides and Christy Turlington Burns. More details to come…
- Keep the conversation going by talking to your friends, family, work, school and church communities about child marriage and opportunities to empower girls.
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