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Alex Whiting – WNN MDG Stories

Child bride and her teenage groom

A young Indian bride, Sheela, 8, sits besides her fourteen-year-old groom Daulat Ram (2nd L) during their marriage ceremony at Rajgarh district in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, May 4, 2003. Image:Str JSG/DL/REUTERS

(WNN) LONDON : If a girl is married before the age of 18, her body may not be fully developed and her education will probably be cut short, child rights activists say. Chances are she will be wedded to a much older man and her negotiating skills will be limited.

As a result, she’s more likely to die as a result of pregnancy and childbirth, be beaten, raped or infected with HIV by her husband, abused by her in-laws and remain poor. Her children are more likely to die before the age of one, or grow up malnourished, poor and uneducated.

SO WHY DO PARENTS CHOOSE CHILD MARRIAGE?

The parents of child brides are often poor and use marriage as a way to provide for their daughter’s future, especially in areas where there are few economic opportunities for women.

Some families use marriage to build and strengthen alliances, to seal property deals, settle disputes or pay off debts.

In some cultures, child marriage is encouraged to increase the number of pregnancies and ensure enough children survive into adulthood to work on family land and support elderly relatives.

In South Asia, some families marry off all their daughters at the same time to reduce the cost of the wedding ceremony.

Chastity is another major reason, and many parents want to make sure their daughters do not have a child outside marriage.

There are many other cultural reasons for child marriage. In India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu, some communities have a strong social stigma against girls being married after puberty. Some people in Ethiopia’s Amhara region believe that menstruation is induced by intercourse.

Some also fear that if girls receive an education, they will be less willing to fulfill their traditional roles as wife and mother.

The number of child marriages often increases during conflicts or natural disasters, when families seek protection for their daughters or money for themselves.

CAN IT BE STOPPED? 

Many experts working in this field say that child marriage can be reduced by improving girls’ access to education and paid work; improving their confidence; increasing their knowledge of how their bodies work; raising awareness among communities of the consequences of child marriage; and improving laws and enforcing them.

“What we’re finding now is that this combination of information works,” Anju Malhotra, an expert on child marriage and adolescent girls at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), said. “Girls do delay marriage. People’s attitudes do change.”

Here’s how some governments and non-governmental organisations have tackled the issue. These examples were gathered by ICRW:

Bangladesh: The average marriage age has risen since the government launched a secondary school programme in 1994 that pays parents compensation for the loss of their daughters’ domestic and agricultural labour. It also covers school fees and requires parents to sign a commitment not to marry off their daughters until they reach 18.

India: The average marriage age for girls rose from to 17 from 14.5 in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra state, just two years after girls were offered a life skills course. The course, run by the Institute for Health Management, Pachod, aims to improve girls’ confidence in influencing decisions about their own lives, including marriage.

Ethiopia: Early marriage committees in Amhara and Tigray regions intervene when they hear of parents wanting to marry off girls under the legal age of 18. The committees include government officials, women’s associations, religious leaders, teachers, parents and the girls themselves. The committees counsel parents and if necessary use legal action to stop marriages. In one year, 12,000 marriages were prevented.

India: The Supreme Court requires married couples to register their consent to be married and their age with local authorities, to better enforce the law establishing 18 as the minimum age of marriage. In the state of Uttar Pradesh, the government has launched a programme to increase awareness about the legal age of marriage, change values and attitudes about child marriage and deny eligibility for government jobs to people marrying before age 18.

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Journalist Alex Whiting has been writing about global needs, relief and human rights issues via AlertNet since 2005.

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