Photo: PRBThe custom of marrying off adolescent girls is on the
decline in developing countries, but millions of girls remain at risk,
according to a new report by the Population
Reference Bureau
.

The PRB is a US non-government organisation that works in
closely with the UN and other population groups, as well as aid organisations
and reproductive health groups, so it is not an easy task to sort out
population control interests from human rights issues in this campaign against
child brides. Nevertheless, the figures they present are disturbing.

In the last decade, 58 million young women in developing
countries—one in three—have been married before the age of 18, many against
their will and in violation of international laws and conventions on women’s
rights. Even more disturbing, according to new figures, one in nine girls, or
15 million, have been forced into marriage between the ages of 10 and 14.3 With
limited education and economic opportunities, child brides are often condemned
to a life of poverty, social isolation, and powerlessness, infringing on their
human rights, health, and well-being.

PRB says that “to meet goals related to poverty, education,
gender equality, maternal and child health, and HIV and AIDS, nations and
communities must put an end to child marriage.”

If we add “recognising the human dignity of women and girls”
it will give us a filter for discerning the right means for attaining those
goals.

We also need to define “child marriage”. While marriage
before the age of 18 is by no means desirable, girls of 15 to 18 years of age
are in a different category to younger girls, who better fit the definition of
child.

In some countries child brides are more common, and there
are differences within countries, especially between cities and rural areas. In
the Amhara region of Ethiopia half of all girls are married before their 15th
birthday and, according to a study of two districts, 14 per cent before they
were aged 10. In Nepal, 7 per cent of girls are married by age 10 and 40 per
cent by age 15. Mali, Bangladesh and some states of India also have rates of
early adolescent marriage at around20 per cent.

Risk factors for child marriage are predictable: poverty,
lack of education opportunities, the lure of a bride price. Also:

Parents may worry that if they do not marry their
daughters according to local expectations, they will be unable to marry them at
all. They may also believe that marriage will ensure their daughters’ safety by
preventing premarital sex and out-of-wedlock pregnancy. And traditional
cultural norms of older men marrying young, virginal girls to prove their masculinity
continue to drive this behavior. These factors must all be taken into account
in developing interventions that work to end child marriage and its devastating
outcomes.

The practice is patently harmful:

Child marriage undermines nearly every Millennium
Development Goal; it is an obstacle to eradicating poverty, achieving universal
primary education, promoting gender equality, improving maternal and child
health, and reducing HIV and AIDS. Child marriage also infringes on the
rights of women and children by denying them access to an education, good
health, and freedom. These rights are spelled out in international agreements such
as the Convention on the Elimination on All Forms of Discrimination Against
Women (CEDAW) and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

The PRB report details some of the benefits of delaying
marriage: protection of maternal and child health, reducing the risk of HIV and
AIDS, improving reproductive health and wellbeing, education and economic
opportunities. Examples of programmes aimed at reducing child marriage and
changing attitudes to it are given. These cover informing girls about their
right to free consent to marriage; lessons on HIV, STIs and contraceptive use;
awareness-raising among parents, teachers and community leaders of the
importance of education for girls; creating more educational opportunities for
girls; schemes for generating income for girls; and use of the mass media to
change community norms.

A list of priorities for policies and programmes begins with
enforcing “existing laws that increase the age of marriage to 18 for girls and
boys and develop more stringent penalties for parents who arrange for their
children to be married.” Another item reads:

Address the needs of
very young adolescent girls.
Research and policies need a greater focus on
10-to-14-yearold girls, an extremely vulnerable group. While many developing countries
have promoted girls’ education, health policies are almost nonexistent for this
age group. Priorities for policy change include integrating adolescent
reproductive health in national health policies, developing benchmarks for
adolescent well-being, and recognizing the rights of young girls to receive health
information and services. These policies also need to be reinforced with
training of health providers to ensure adolescent girls can access and use
health services.

The familiar “reproductive health” language in this
paragraph clearly points to providing contraception — and probably abortion by
legal means or otherwise — for these extremely vulnerable young girls, an aim
that sits oddly with the insistence on 18 as the age of marriage.

If it is so important that they do not marry, why not make
it equally clear to their communities that girls and boys should abstain from
sex? Why muddy the waters by teaching them that it is only the consequences of
sex that matter, not uncommitted sex itself?

Difficult to do? One of the priorities on the list is changing community
norms about child marriage. Surely the most important part of that is changing
attitudes to child sex.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet