Early Marriage: Dealing an Irrevocable Blow to Children’s Physical and Psychosocial Well-being
According to World Health Organization, early marriage refers to a formal or informal marital union where either one or both partners are below the age of 18. It affects more girls than boys globally (UNICEF, 2005). According to UNICEF Innocenti Research center, the practice is very common in sub Saharan African and South Asia. It is a pernicious problem that is deeply entrenched in most developing societies, and calls for a united stand against it.
I have personally witnessed a case of early marriage in my village. 11 year-old Safina was forcibly married to a 27 years old man. The offer was from a well-to-do family, and the girl’s parents thought their daughter’s future would be secured, so they accepted the proposal against their daughter’s wishes. After marriage, the girl was made to discontinue her education. She was pressured into accepting family responsibilities for which she was not prepared. As of now, she has had multiple miscarriages because of her reproductive immaturity. She has become very weak and fallen into depression. She weeps when she meets any of her old school friends, and wishes she had not been uprooted from her previous life of school and childhood play at her parents’ home.
The exact number of child marriages in Pakistan is not known due to poor documentation and false registry of birth certificates. However in 2012, it was reported that 43% child brides were aged between 11-15 years, and 32% were 6-10 years. Our country is one of the 10 countries having greatest number of early marriages.
A WHO report published in 2013 shows that globally 39,000 girls (under 18 years) get married each day. Based on this data, it is predicted that by 2020 another 140 million girls will be married, 9 million of whom being under 15. The majority of these will be from Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
In 2012, there were sixty million child marriages globally; 42 % of them were from Pakistan (Zia, 2013). Other data show that the prevalence in Pakistan is 50% (Godha, Hotchkiss &Gage (2013). In Pakistan, the prevalence is greater in rural areas (37%) than urban areas (21%) (Khanna, Verma & Weiss, 2011). The Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey (2006-2007) showed that 50% girls of age 15-18 were either pregnant or had already borne a child.
Causes of early marriages
Poverty is one of the main factors behind this practice, as conservative minds tend to view daughters as an economic burden. Also some believe that early marriage is endorsed by their religion. There is a lack of public awareness about the untoward health consequences of teenage pregnancy. Also, there exists only weak legislation to prevent underage marriages.
Another social evil, the dowry system is a contributing factor: some people think that the value of dowry increases with the girl’s age. Literature review suggests that the poorest countries have the largest number of early marriages. Reasons for this include low socio-economic status, low education level, gender inequality, cultural context and social norms (UNICEF 2005; Malhotra et al. 2011; UNFPA 2012; UNICEF 2014b; Klug man et al.2014;).
Impact on physical and mental health
Early marriage is a violation of the most basic rights of children. It directly jeopardizes girls’ health, education, and psychological well being.
As they have not yet fully reached reproductive maturity, girls married young are at greater risk of experiencing sexual trauma, early pregnancies and miscarriages leading to psychological and physiological damage. Research shows that the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases and cervical cancer is increased in the physically immature. There is also greater risk of maternal morbidity and infant mortality during teenage pregnancy and delivery, due to immaturity and low birth weight of infant. Data show 70,000 childbirth-related deaths per year in girls aged 15-19 globally (UNICEF, State of the World’s Children, 2009).
The psychological consequences include separation anxiety from parents, withdrawal and isolation which leads to depression, compounded by burden of responsibilities that are beyond their years. Emotional distress comes from being too young to be ready for sexual relations physically and mentally.
When married young, girls are taken out of school and their academic life is prematurely ended, depriving them of their adolescent transition into adulthood, their personal freedom and friendships. Literature review shows that early marriage affects women empowerment and decision making due to withdrawal from education (Malhotra et al. 2011; Plan UK 2011; Vogelstien 2013). Additionally there is lack of awareness to arrange sexual activity, use contraceptives and space out pregnancies (UNFPA, 2013).
The “Theory of Change” was developed to end early marriage after a deep understanding of its causes and consequences. This theory identifies five areas of influence on a girl’s life which were called five pillars of the theory of change (TOC) planned to end early marriages.
The first and foremost of these is girl empowerment in decision making. Second most important is family support for continuation of education rather than pushing her to early marriage. Thirdly, community awareness about consequences of early marriage and gender inequality is essential. The fourth influence is that of public policy regarding equal opportunities, and the fifth is institutions that closely monitor implementation of laws.
According to the Declaration of Human Rights, Article 8, everyone is entitled to “the human right to a remedy if their rights are violated”. This urges one to speak up because children’s rights are being grossly violated by early marriages.
According to UN Millennium Development Goals, Goal 3 is to promote gender equality and women empowerment; Goal 4 is to reduce child mortality; and Goal 5 is to attain improved maternal health. But today’s scenario in South Asia and Sub-Saharan African presents a huge obstacle to achieving the MDGs.
So now the imperative is what to do to eliminate this practice from our society?
In the light of this discussion, our primary goal should be to empower girls and women through education. Secondly we should create awareness within families and at community level about the negative societal impact of early marriages. Thirdly we can eradicate this practice by eliminating gender inequality from our society. UNICEF aims to provide equal opportunities to girls in education and women rights in different countries through Global Girls’ Education Program. Government and NGOs should work in collaboration to ensure access to education and health services by girls. Young girls who are already married should be supported generally but especially with regard to reproductive health, to avoid early and improperly managed pregnancy. Government should establish and enforce laws to penalize the perpetrators of early marriages.
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