Married Young: The Scourge of Child Brides in South Asia

Child marriage is both the symptom of a patriarchal society unwilling to let women progress and the cause of other gender-based issues such as economic marginalization and poor health care.
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Decades ago in West Bengal, India, a young girl, Kiranbala Bhattacharjee was married off at just 11 years of age. She became a mother to 11 children two of whom died. She was my grandmother and my memory of her was as a beautiful and kind woman. She was also a quiet, frail, stooped, uneducated and prematurely aged lady, who had undergone the ravages of repeated pregnancies and birthing at a tender age, while her body was still not developed enough to bear children safely.

Fast forward to the year 2013. The story of 15-year-old Nagma Bano from Rajasthan, India, is no different. She woefully recounts her aspirations to read, write and wear a school uniform like other girls her age. Her father married her off at the age of 13. Today, she is a wife and a daughter-in-law with endless responsibilities and treated as chattel.

Yet Nagma Bano's story is not unusual. South Asia is reported to have the largest number of child brides. United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA estimates that between 2011 and 2020, more than 140 million girls will be married before their 18th birthday, and almost 50 percent of these child brides are in South Asia.

"Child marriage is an appalling violation of human rights and robs girls of their education, health and long-term prospects," says Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director, UNFPA.

Governments in South Asia have an absolute legal obligation to eliminate child marriage. Yet in 2010, for example, 46 percent of women aged 20-24 reported being married before the age of 18. That translated to 24.4 million young girls in South Asia.

Child marriage is both the symptom of a patriarchal society unwilling to let women progress and the cause of other gender-based issues such as economic marginalization and poor health care. It will be impossible to completely eradicate child marriage without changing archaic social values in South Asian society.

'Rapidly developing' India is, shamefully, home to 47 percent of the world's child marriages. In Afghanistan 46 percent of girls are married before 18; 60-80 percent of those girls were forced into the marriages by their parents. In Nepal, 41 percent of girls end up as child brides. One-third of Bangladeshi women surveyed (at age 20-24) stated they had been married before age 15 and the remaining two-thirds had been married by 18. 24 percent of Pakistani girls were married before 18 and 7 percent before 15.

As a result of early marriage, most do not complete basic schooling, let alone pursue higher education. They are excluded from the workforce with limited access to economic opportunities, and remain trapped in a cycle of poverty and dependence on men, often in sexually or physically abusive situations.

Many also do not have access to adequate health care or birth control, and pregnancies at a very young age can have dangerous complications as well as exposure to HIV and AIDS. The social pressure on their young bodies to reproduce, especially to produce male offspring, soon after marriage, puts their bodies under grave risk of pregnancy-related complications and mortality. The skewed power relations and patriarchal family structures leave little decision-making powers in the hands of these young girls who are left with few choices and little control over their own bodies.

UNICEF estimates suggest that in South Asia, girls aged 15-19 are twice as likely to die due to complications related to pregnancy and childbirth compared to women aged 20-24. In fact, pregnancy-related medical issues are the leading cause of death of 15-19 year old girls in low-income countries.

Laws in South Asian countries vary. India, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Nepal and Bhutan deem marriageable age to be 18 for women, whereas Afghanistan and Pakistan have set the age to be 15 and 16 respectively. However, in all of these countries many girls are married well before the legal age; tragically some before 15 years of age. Moreover, South Asian laws are often designed such that the legal age of consent for marriage for girls is lower than the same for boys. Child marriage laws in both Bangladesh and India establish a minimum age of marriage of 18 for girls, while it is 21 for boys. Only Nepal and Sri Lanka (except in the case of Muslim women where it is 15) set a consistent minimum age of marriage regardless of gender.

Despite these laws, efforts to enforce them have at best been lackadaisical. In some cases Government attempts to enforce these laws have been met with hostility by the communities that support and encourage these practices. In Afghanistan a law that aims to eliminate violence against women has been fought repeatedly; it has yet to be ratified by the Parliament, despite being in the works since 2005.

Child marriages are often a product of regressive social customs and community structures. For example, in North India, 'Khap Panchayats', informal but all-powerful village councils that often govern rural areas, have decreed that girls be married as soon as they reach puberty to prevent social corruption and the influx of 'Western values'. Government legal frameworks are practically inaccessible and unworkable in such rural hinterlands, leaving few legal options.

Effective prevention of child marriage, then, can only be possible with a combination of stricter enforcement of laws prohibiting child marriage along with reforming the patriarchal social structures that largely underpin South Asian communities.

South Asian nations need to demonstrate political will by championing international measures, such as the United Nations Human Rights Council's procedural resolution to end the practice of child marriage in 2013. As per the Center for Reproductive Rights, "many South Asian countries with significantly high rates of child marriage failed to co-sponsor the resolution - specifically India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan or Pakistan. Nepal, the only country with a high incidence of child marriage in the region, did come forward and co-sponsored the resolution".

For Government agencies and law-enforcement bodies, a large barrier to enforcing anti-child marriage laws is the lack of information that trickles out of remote and rural areas, home to most child marriages. Local and national Governments should take active steps to bridge this gap by working for example with community-based volunteers of their Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies and reaching out to local NGOs, village councils and health practitioners. They need to use these connections to keep track of data on child marriage, and improve community awareness of the negative consequences of these marriages, especially the health risks that come with it, and above all change mindsets.

Emphasizing girls' education by providing them with safe schools and higher learning opportunities, as well as trade and vocational training, will also reduce the chances of them being married off before they reach adulthood. Greater economic opportunities for women will ensure that women have control over the choices they make, and bring an end to the inter-generational nature of this scourge.

Take the example of India where women constitute half of its young population. Given the right opportunities, they will be financially independent and become drivers of India's future socio-economic growth.

That will be impossible if they are going to be child brides, without equal rights and opportunities.

11 October 2014 is the International Day of the Girl Child. Will this New Year be a harbinger of positive change? Will civil society and Governments stand together in support of these young girls and protect their most fundamental human rights that enable them to be architects of their own destiny?

These are personal views of Siddharth Chatterjee. He is the Chief Diplomat and Head of Strategic Partnerships at the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, IFRC.

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