Mahdere Paulos

(WOMENSENEWS)–Rebeca, who lives in Bangladesh, was forced to leave school at 14 when her parents arranged for her to marry a 39-year-old man. Her family was poor and the man had agreed to waive the dowry requirement. He ended up infecting Rebeca with a sexually transmitted disease, and at 20, she has already undergone surgery twice for uterine ulcers.

Rebeca’s story was one of many compiled by the International Center for Research on Women in Washington, which is running an international campaign against child marriage. Other tales describe the plights of girls and female teens raped by their husbands, widowed while still teens, forced to resort to sex work to feed their children. To protect their privacy, the center used only first names in its publications.

About 51 million girls and teens in developing countries are currently married, according to the center.

Another 100 million will be married within the next 10 years, the Population Council, an international reproductive health organization headquartered in New York, estimates.

Child marriage occurs most often in some of the poorest countries in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. In parts of Ethiopia, Nigeria and India, over 40 percent of girls and young women are married by the time they are 15. More than 50 percent are married before 18 in Niger, Chad, Bangladesh, Mali, Nepal, Mozambique and Uganda.

This year, the United States provided $623 million in development aid through its Agency for International Development to 16 of the 20 countries with the highest child marriage rates. If Afghanistan is included, the figure tops $1.25 billion; data on child marriage is not officially collected there although it appears to be a common practice.

Reducing child mortality, improving maternal health and eliminating the gender gap in education are all United Nations millennium development goals, a set of eight targets agreed to by world leaders six years ago in the effort to eradicate global poverty by 2015.

The prevalence of child marriage undermines these goals by increasing health risks for girls and depriving them of educational and economic opportunities, said Mahdere Paulos, executive director of the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital.

Anti-Child Marriage Push

In July, two Democratic Senators, Richard Durbin from Illinois and Hillary Clinton from New York, and Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska, introduced the International Child Marriage Prevention and Assistance Act. The bill calls on the U.S. State Department to integrate efforts to fight child marriage in its overall development assistance strategy.

The bill would provide $60 million over the next three fiscal years to the State Department to support community-based organizations in developing countries that fight child marriage. It also asks the State Department to report on child marriage in its annual human rights reports on foreign countries.

International human rights bodies and treaties, including the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, either discourage or outright prohibit marriage before the age of 18. But child marriage is a deeply entrenched cultural practice and laws alone won’t prevent it, according to Paulos.

"We need to work at the grassroots level to educate people about the problems of child marriage," she told Women’s eNews while on a speaking tour in the United States last month. Her organization is now working in local communities in Ethiopia to persuade parents to delay marriage for their daughters.

"Parents are very well aware that child marriage is illegal, but exhortations won’t work," said Judith Bruce, director of the Population Council’s Gender, Family and Development Program. "We need to understand the economic underpinnings of child marriage and create alternatives."

Still Exists in Wealthy Countries

Although the practice is most common in the developing world, child marriage still exists in industrialized countries, where it is intimately linked with poverty.

In the United States, teens can get married as young as 14 with parental consent in some states. After a highly publicized case in Kansas last year in which a pregnant 14-year-old married her 22-year-old boyfriend, the state raised the minimum marrying age to 15 with a judge’s approval. The man, Matthew Koso, pleaded guilty to first-degree sexual assault and was sentenced in February to 18 to 30 months in prison.

According to a 2002 study by the Washington-based Center for Law and Social Policy, around 1 percent of U.S. teens between 15 and 17 have been married. However, the 2000 U.S. census found that teen marriage rates increased by nearly 50 percent during the 90s.

Researchers have speculated on a number of reasons for this escalation, including the impact of abstinence-until-marriage programs, welfare policies that promote marriage and the influx of immigrants from societies where early marriage is common.

A 2004 report by Save the Children found that over one-fifth of 20-year-old women in the United States gave birth while still teens, the highest adolescent birth rate among industrialized countries. U.S. teens living in rural communities with high poverty rates and below-average education levels are most likely to become young mothers.

Linked to Poverty

Countries where child marriage is widespread tend to have high rates of poverty; more than three-quarters of the people in Bangladesh, Mali, Mozambique and Niger live on less than $2 a day. Within these countries, girls and female teens living in low-income households are twice as likely to marry young as counterparts in better-off families, according to the Washington-based National Research Council.

"One of the reasons that they marry their daughters off is that there are no other options for girls, no prospects for education or employment," said Leslie Calman, vice president of external relations for the International Center for Research on Women.

The United Nations Children’s Fund has found that the more education a girl receives, the less likely she is to become a child bride. With that in mind, grassroots programs in Zimbabwe, Kenya and Bangladesh have focused on providing economic incentives for parents to keep girls in school.

Meanwhile, the International Center for Research on Women and the Population Council work with local partners to offer life-skills training to unmarried girls, helping them build self-esteem and resist pressure to get married, as well as reproductive health education and services to married girls.

Child marriage only reinforces the cycle of poverty, pointed out Calman. "In addition to the lost potential of girls who are married off, you have real costs associated with women’s health and infant mortality."

Teens younger than 15 are five times more likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth than women in their 20s and mortality rates for their infants are higher as well. Child brides may face a higher risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases than unmarried sexually active teens, according to research by the University of Chicago. And a 2004 study by the International Center for Research on Women in the Indian states of Bihar and Jharkhand found that girls married before 18 were twice as likely to have suffered physical abuse or threats than those who married later.

Bojana Stoparic is a freelance writer based in New York.


For more information:

International Center for Research on Women:

Population Council:

United Nations Population Fund’s Child Marriage Fact Sheet:

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