Child marriage exposes young girls to abuse and domestic violence, increases their risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections and most certainly signals the end their of education.
These are some of the worrying facts revealed in 'New Insights on Preventing Child Marriage: A Global Analysis of Factors and Programs', a study published recently by the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW), based in Washington, D.C., USA. Part of the Centre's initiatives to put a stop to the practice of child marriage across the globe, the study is addressed to USAID (United States Agency for International Development) as well as various policy makers and development practitioners.
Researchers examined various factors associated with child marriage, ranging from education and economic status to age gap, polygyny (a husband with multiple wives) and religion, to determine the possible risk and protective factors of early marriage.
While globally the median age of marriage is increasing, child marriage is still a common occurrence in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, parts of Latin America and the Caribbean. Among the 20 'hotspot' countries identified by the study - 15 of which are in Africa - India ranks 11th, with 50 per cent girls likely to be married before they reach the age of 18 years. Niger tops the list with 76.6 per cent, while Bangladesh leads the south Asian countries, with 68.7 per cent.
However, there are some significant gaps in the geographical coverage of the study. The report has derived results from the Demographic and Health Surveys Data, a project funded by the USAID that covers only about 75 countries. It does not take into account countries of the Middle East and Latin America, and China. The revelations are nonetheless startling.
The ICRW report says that the age gap between the bride and the groom is likely to be more in case of a child marriage than in the case of an adult marriage. In the case of child marriage, often only one of the partners is a child, invariably the girl. In fact, in some cases, the age gap between the bride and the groom was found to be as high as 78 years.
Even if this extreme is not approximated in most cases, in marrying at an early age to grooms much older, child brides are likely to experience far more domestic violence than those married at a later age, as they have low self-esteem and, thereby, believe wife beating to be justified. Many such marriages are also polygynous.
The girls are also plagued with some serious health problems. Early pregnancies - concomitant with early marriage - result in a number of complications. The rate of maternal mortality is higher among child brides, as compared to adult women, and they face a higher risk of suffering from childbirth. The health related woes don't end here. The report cites a study from Kenya, which shows that a child wife is at a greater risk of contracting HIV than unmarried but sexually active girls of the same age, as they have little choice of altering their sexual relations.
Equally significant is the fact that girls who are married in childhood are disadvantaged educationally and economically. The study has revealed a direct and very strong connection between child marriage and lack of education. The reverse correlation also holds. When education is available to girls, marriage does not appear as the most desirable option at an early age.
Child marriages also indicate the level of development of a region. The fact that the practice is prevalent in the most backward parts of the world is a clear indicator of the close connection between development and marriage practices. Thus, India's BIMARU states (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh) report the highest instances of child marriages.
Incidentally, researchers did not find any direct correlation between religious affiliation and proclivity for child marriage. This clearly indicates that such practices cannot be understood as merely customary. They continue as long as the conditions supporting them are fertile.
Thirteen years was found to be the 'tipping point', as the incidence of young girls marrying increased dramatically. However, what the study does not say is that this more or less coincides with the age of reaching puberty at which the concern with control of female sexuality heightens in most patriarchal societies. In such societies, marriage of girls is seen as a means of protecting the family honor and also as an onerous responsibility that should be fulfilled as soon as possible.
Besides presenting the many reasons responsible for the prevalence of child marriage, there is a section in the report that 'scans' the existing programmes that directly or indirectly address the problem. Based primarily on information available through the Internet and vetted by experts, this somewhat limited but broad-based approach reveals that countries that are most prone to child marriage have few or no programmes to combat the problem. And even where such initiatives do exist, they focus more on prevention, sensitization and education. Very few look into the problems of the girls already married.
Despite the gaps in the geographical coverage of the study, it is a useful macro- level analysis. The fact that early marriage is deeply embedded in economic and social practices of several countries in the world indicates that an all-around focus on sustainable development, with special emphasis on universal education, is bound to yield relevant results.
But a study of this kind is also likely to gloss over some facts about child marriage that can only be gleaned at the micro-level. For instance, the Bedia community of north India marry their sons to young girls, sometimes as young as eight years. But they engage their own daughters in prostitution, usually after they reach puberty. Communities from which they seek the child-brides have shown an increasing inclination to turn towards prostitution of daughters. In such a context, social workers have seen marriage (even of young girls) as a protection against prostitution, for these communities are strictly committed to not engaging married girls/women in prostitution.
Undoubtedly, encouraging marriage of young girls can be seen as a short-term measure to protect women in such communities from prostitution. But whether one must not resort to such a means altogether remains a moot point. Such communities can begin to address the issue of child marriage only once they have alternative livelihood options. At present, their survival strategies encourage child prostitution to which child marriage appears to be the only immediate antidote.