“Nujood is a normal girl with parents and plenty of brothers and sisters… When she smiles, a tiny dimple appears in her left cheek. One cold and gray February evening in 2008, however, that appealing and mischievous grin suddenly melted into bitter tears when her father told her that she was going to wed a man three times her age.”
—I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced by Nujood Ali with Delphine Minoui
Ten-year-old Nujood Ali escaped her in-laws’ home, took a taxi to the courthouse, and demanded that a judge grant her a divorce from her abusive husband in 2008. Exposing a culture in which nearly half of girls are married before their 18th birthdays, Nujood’s story conveyed the reality of child marriage to a shocked global audience.
Defined as the marriage of anyone under the age of 18, child marriage is considered a human rights violation by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Nevertheless, it remains prevalent, especially in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Several countries in these regions have child marriage rates upwards of 50 percent. In Latin America and the Caribbean, 29 percent of girls are married by age 18.
An estimated 51 million girls are in marriages today. If current trends continue, approximately 25,000 additional girls will be married each day, totaling 100 million over 10 years. Girls are often given no say in the matter. “One day my father told me I was to be married,” said Takia, who was married in Niger at age nine. “I was never asked how I felt. It was my duty to respect his decision.”
Poverty perpetuates the practice of child marriage. In countries where many live on less than $1 a day, child marriage eases the financial burden on girls’ parents. If girls cannot afford school or find paid work, marriage is considered their best option. “If a girl is not going to school, what is she going to do?” asked Amina Ado, a grandmother living in Niger. “She has to get married and give birth.”
Some parents, like the father of Hanadi, a pregnant 14-year-old child bride, view marriage as a form of protection for their daughters. Hanadi’s father sent her to Jordan to marry her 20-year-old cousin so that she would be safe from the trouble in Syria. “They rape girls who are as young as her in Syria now. If they raped a nine-year-old girl, they can do anything. I will not feel OK if I do not see her married to a decent man who can protect her.” Similarly, Nujood was forced into marriage after one of her sisters was raped and another kidnapped. “We’re finding, for the most part, that people are making these decisions because they feel it’s best for their daughters,” said Jeffrey Edmeades, a social demographer with the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW).
Although regional trends vary, poor girls and rural girls are at greatest risk for early marriage. Girls from poor families are nearly twice as likely to marry before age 18 as girls from wealthier families, who rarely marry before adulthood. In Peru and South Africa, more than 60 percent of child brides come from the poorest 40 percent of households. In Senegal, the child marriage rate in urban areas is 23 percent, but in rural areas it’s 55 percent. In Niger, 91 percent of married girls live in rural areas.
|An adolescent mother (aged 14) and resident of the suburbs of Kathmandu, Nepal returns from a nearby health center after receiving information about family planning and use of contraceptives. Her father (right) accompanied her. Child marriages (before age 15) are common in Nepal especially for females. An estimation shows that 17 percent of urban females and 26 percent of rural females marry before age 15. Photo: Ram Prasad Humagai, Courtesy of Photoshare|
Child Marriage, a Population Issue
High rates of child marriage go hand in hand with low rates of contraceptive use and high fertility. Early marriage results in a longer childbearing period, unless contraception is used. Many girls forced into marriage, however, face difficulty in accessing family planning. Indeed, 46 percent of married girls have never used contraception, and only 31 percent currently use a modern method. Women who marry young tend to have more children over the course of their lives than women who marry as adults. In Yemen, almost 50 percent of girls are married by their 18th birthdays, and the rate of contraceptive use among married girls aged 15-19 is only 2.7 percent. Not surprisingly, the fertility rate in Yemen is high, at 5.2 births per woman.
Entrenched cultural norms and familial expectations contribute to pregnancy soon after marriage. In Burkina Faso, where more than half of girls are married by age 18, women typically give birth within the first 20 months of marriage. Girls face pressure from their husbands and their husbands’ families to prove their fertility and girls who postpone childbearing are often stigmatized.
National Geographic journalist Cynthia Gorney relayed a conversation she had with a Yemeni sheikh. He asked whether she had any children and she responded that she had two. He scoffed and pointed to his daughter who was 26 years old and had given birth to 10 children. She had married her cousin at age 14.
A 19-year-old girl from Yemen recalled, “Immediately after we were withdrawn from the school by our father, my maternal uncle came to ask for our hands in marriage for his sons. My sister and I refused. Our father forced us and of course we were married against our will and this was the first injustice done to us. I was 13 years old and I had just started menstruating. I was engaged for a year before I was married off at 14 years of age. I became pregnant three months after I got married.”
Poor Health Outcomes
Childbearing has dangerous consequences for child brides because their bodies are not yet fully developed. Girls ages 10-14 are five times more likely to die of maternal causes than women ages 20-24. Pregnancy is dangerous for older teens, too. Each year, 70,000 girls ages 15-19 succumb to maternal mortality. In fact, pregnancy-related complications are the leading cause of death among teenage girls in the developing world.
Maternal morbidity (illness and injury) is also a threat to child brides. Girls are at greater risk of obstetric fistula than grown women. If not repaired, fistula can cause incontinence, which often leads husbands to abandon their young wives because of the odor and shame the condition brings. Having no education or income of their own, abandoned young mothers are especially vulnerable. Young girls are also more susceptible to contracting STIs from their husbands and to being victims of domestic violence. In Kenya, 36 percent of women married before age 18 believe that men are sometimes justified in beating their wives; 20 percent of Kenyan women married as adults hold this belief.
Early childbearing brings much risk to babies as well. The mortality rate for babies born to mothers under the age of 20 is almost 75 percent higher than the rate for infants born to older mothers. Surviving infants are more likely to be premature, underweight, and to contract HIV from infected mothers during delivery.
The Education Connection
The relationship between education and early marriage is bidirectional. Girls with less education are more likely to marry young than their more educated peers. And girls who get married young are typically not afforded the opportunity to continue their educations. “I am very interested in education,” said Sanani, a Nepalese teenager who was married at age 14, “but as soon as my marriage took place, how could I leave all this household work behind?”
More than 50 percent of child brides in India, Senegal, and Yemen have no education. In Niger, the figure is 90 percent. In Mozambique, 60 percent of girls with no education are married by age 18, compared to only 10 percent of girls with secondary education, and 1 percent of girls with higher education. According to ICRW, girls with secondary education are six times less likely to become child brides than girls with elementary or no education.
Education transforms attitudes. It teaches girls to reevaluate traditional beliefs, gender roles, and authority structures. School gives girls confidence and self-esteem, and can modernize their views about responsibilities within families and communities. “Educated girls have more stamina to stand up against harmful traditions, such as early marriage, instead of just accepting their fate,” said World Vision program consultant Beth Fellows. “And when parents see educated girls contributing practical skills that increase the family’s income, they are less eager to marry them off. They begin to value the girls for more than just the dowry they can fetch.”
Time to Say “No”
Child marriage is a sobering reality. It speeds population growth and worsens maternal and infant health outcomes. It keeps communities in poverty by not tapping the potential economic productivity of all its members. ”It’s been shown that where child marriage is in vogue, six of the eight Millennium Development Goals, you can forget about,” said Desmond Tutu. “You can forget obviously gender equality. You can forget about education because a girl leaves school when she gets married and you can forget about reducing poverty as she is hardly likely to earn a great deal with no education.”
There are a number of international human rights conventions and national laws that prohibit child marriage, but these are poorly enforced in places that lack resources and political will. U.S. policymakers must do more to ensure that child marriage is quashed. In 2010, 166 House Republicans voted against the International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act, which would have incorporated the prevention of forced child marriage into U.S. foreign policy. The bill, which required a two-thirds majority, failed to pass, after passing unanimously in the Senate. Since then, the issue has faded from political view. It is crucial that attention be refocused on this pressing problem.