Marriage is defined as being an institutionalised and legally binding agreement between two consenting adults. However, girls who are married off before the age of 18 can neither be described as “adults” nor giving their “consent”, so the question remains: under what circumstances do these unions occur? While it seems as out-dated as it is morally questionable to Western eyes, the practice of arranged marriages still happens around the world where girls are married off to men old enough to be their fathers or even their grandfathers.
In order to highlight this problem that often occurs in the shadows of poverty-stricken countries, this year the United Nations officially declared the 11th of October as “Day of the Girl”. The international community has explicitly prohibited the marriage of minors since the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Yet this legal document has done little to curb this tradition that to this day affects the lives of an estimated 60 millions girls across different continents and religions. Furthermore, this number is set to increase by up to 100 million in the next ten years if the trend is not reversed or even halted.
These child marriages are motivated by cultural reasons where girls are married at an early age in order to maintain the family’s honour by eradicating the fear that they may lose their virginities outside of marriage and ensuring heirs will be quickly produced. While these traditions are old and have been practised for as long as living memory, the tide is turning and punishment can include prison and harsh ramifications. However, these preventative measures are usually futile endeavours since child marriages often occur in isolated rural communities whose members see no reason to involve outsiders in their affairs.
While cultural traditions that have been ingrained into the psyche of these societies should not be ignored, economic hardships demonstrate the harsh reality of the situation. Child brides can be located in such developing countries as Afghanistan, Nepal, Chad, Mali, Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Uganda amongst almost forty others. A girl statistically falls into the most marginalised category owing to her gender and her youth so it is under these circumstances that girls are viewed as extra mouths to feed or an education that cannot be afforded. Essentially, marriages and betrothals are auctions where unwanted daughters are “sold off” to men whose money will provide the rest of the girl’s family a sense of security.
Another motivation that would push a father into allowing his young daughter to marry is the even less ethical reason of settling a debt. The “opium brides” in Afghanistan are an example where acute poverty has forced farmers to turn their hands at the much more lucrative business of poppy fields and heroin smuggling. Debts are amassed when deals turn sour as they often do in such a dangerous trade so rather than attempt to pay back the unaffordable, a daughter will be exchanged instead.
The serious implications of having girls married before reaching an age of maturity without their consent is revealed in the months following the ceremony once it has been performed and sanctioned. They are often betrothed when they are still playing with dolls and then sent to live with their new husbands shortly after reaching puberty. The grooms therefore must simultaneously adopt the role of husband as well as the role of parent so it is up to them to bring up their young wives who have little understanding of the notion of conceiving children, sexual intercourse or the tasks that will await them when they adopt their new role as a spouse. In the course of history, patriarchal societies have promoted the idea that women should be viewed as submissive creatures and as a consequence marriage merely denotes the transfer of authority from the father to the husband. However, this seems to be literally the case in regards to child brides.
These girls become pregnant very quickly although children having children has both physical and physiological difficulties. On the one hand, even though they can bear children as soon as their menstrual cycles have commenced, this doesn’t mean their bodies are ready for the strenuous process of pregnancy in countries without any maternal health care. From a medical point of view, girls under the age of 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than a woman in her twenties and moreover, it is believed to be the leading cause of death of girls between the ages of 15 to 19 on a world scale. Another aspect is the vulnerability of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, HIV or developing AIDS. They can neither demand fidelity from their much older husbands who have been sexually active longer than they have been alive nor demand the use of condoms during intercourse.
From a psychological point of view, child brides married before the age of 18 are highly likely to be subjected to verbal, physical or sexual abuse from their spouses. Even their in-laws may join contribute since these girls are little more than a bought slaves whose role is to clean the house and raise the children. These conditions foster emotional trauma and depression since their lives have already been mapped out in a mundane manner. They are denied an access to education that could have transformed their lives. More than being a question of independence, education offers a means of being able to contribute financially that doesn’t rely on menial tasks such as harvesting or cleaning.
While some cases of divorce have received international media coverage, for many this is not a viable option let alone one that is a fundamental right. Such recourse brings shame on the family and leaves the girls with little choice but to resort to prostitution, which is the only remaining financial option. The cycle thus remains unbroken where generations of women are lost at an early age. The act of systematically denying young girls and women access to health care, happy marriages and education are the conditions under which poverty blooms. This never-ending problem holds states back from economic growth and a prosperous society.
Change is slow in the coming, but hopefully the increased attention to this problem around the world will see more and more girls in the developing world have their own say about their own destiny.