Rawan didn’t know she would die that night. She had just attended her wedding and returned home with her new husband. The wedding night ritual, a consummation of the marriage expected of every bride, soon followed. For Rawan, the events of that night proved to be physically overwhelming. She suffered from internal injuries that soon caused her death. Rawan was 8. The lack of understanding that an 8 year old body is not mature enough for sexual intercourse with anyone, especially an adult male is appalling to many.
Conflicting reports about Rawan’s identity and existence have surfaced since her story circulated. Neighbors claim that Rawan was real and that she died on her wedding night. Authorities claim that Rawan is alive, well and unmarried. They have produced a little girl named Rawan, who talks about becoming a doctor. Many critics of child marriage believe that the officials are trying to save face. Real or imagined, Rawan would have been one of many girls born into a culture that dictates that a woman marry according to her family’s wishes. The problem in this case is that Rawan and many girls like her are not women. Child brides are often as young as 7 years old. They are married off to much older men who can afford to pay their parents a fee. Grooms need to pay the family a dowry to take the child; they are often older and more financially established.
Yemen practices this custom as well as Niger, Bangladesh, Ethiopia and dozens of other developing countries. The physical, mental and emotional effects of such a practice on young girls is devastating. If they survive that long, most give birth to their first child in their teens. In Yemen, Rawan’s supposed country of origin, the average birth age is officially listed as 19.2 years.
How Many Girls are Forced to Marry?
In 158 countries the legal marriage age is 18. This fact does not prevent child marriages from taking place and the laws are seldom followed or enforced. According to the United Nations Population Fund, there are 14.2 million child marriages yearly or an average of 39,000 a day. The numbers are expected to increase due to population growth. Most child marriages take place in developing African and South Asian countries. Niger for example has a 75 percent rate of child marriage, while Bangladesh, where child marriage is illegal, has a 66 percent rate. South American countries, such as El Salvador, contend with child marriages as well.
What are the Causes ?
CARE, UNICEF and other organizations cite poverty as one main reason that families force their daughters into early marriages. Poor families are more likely to arrange for these marriages due to extreme financial need. Parents, unable to afford food, marry off their daughters to ensure that they’re provided for. Unfortunately, this custom sets their own daughter up for life in a poverty cycle. She will have more children, due to starting young. The financial responsibility for her children will also be a burden and the cycle will continue. Her lack of educational and economic opportunities will limit or cut off earning power. Her family will be forced to make decisions in survival mode.
In Yemen over 42 percent of families live under the poverty line. In a country mostly dependent on crude oil production and coffee or gas exports, money is not plentiful. In Niger,the country with the highest percentage of child brides, 63 percent live under the poverty level. Families also marry their daughters young because it honors tradition. There is tremendous social pressure to marry daughters as a way of securing the family honor. A girl or woman’s virtue is measured by her sexual activity or lack thereof in many traditions. An out of wedlock pregnancy or even whispers of a girl no longer remaining a virgin brings shame according to local customs.
What are the Consequences for Girls?
Child brides endure a mountain of health risks from birth complications, disease and violence. Studies from The International Center for Research on Women indicate that child brides are more vulnerable to physical, emotional and sexual abuse at their husband’s hands. Because they are often married to older men, these girls have a higher risk of contracting HIV. In parts of Africa, child brides are 75 percent more likely to contract HIV than single, sexually active women of the same age. This kind of recurring practice facilitates the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Child brides are subject to their older husband’s wishes. Even if the husband has engaged in sexually risky behavior, these young girls are unable to use protective measures for their own sexual health. Sex in these marriages is like a sanctioned form of sexual abuse. Critics argue that sex should not be considered consensual with an underage bride. Due to age and status differences, the balance of economic, educational, social and physically power often rests with the husband.
Marriage also effectively ends a young girl’s education. Most child brides are immediately withdrawn from school and expected to become pregnant soon after. The CIA World Fact Book lists that girls in Yemen can expect to attend school for 8 years on average; their literacy rate is 48.5 percent. In Bangladesh, girls normally attend school for 10 years; the female literacy rate reaches 53.4 percent. In Niger, where 3 out of 4 girls marry before 18, a mere 15.1 percent of women are literate.
Perhaps the most disturbing statistic is that young women who give birth under the age of 15 are 5 times more likely to die during labor. 15-19 year olds are twice as likely to die in childbirth than mothers 20 and up. Complications during labor, not war, famine or disease, is the leading cause of death for 15-19 year old girls in these countries. Their children are also more likely to die soon after birth according to UNICEF estimates. Babies of child brides have a 50 percent higher death rate if their mothers are under 20. These girls face real consequences. Marriage for them can spell D-E-A-T-H. What should be a joyous moment, the birth of their child, is possibly a life-ending event.
How can We Prevent Child Marriage?
Most child marriages are arranged for financial reasons; tradition also plays an important role. Human Rights Organizations feel that if families have alternatives they’ll delay marriage for their daughters. Parents struggling to provide for a family need options. Free educational resources allow families to send their girls to school without financial worries. Creating programs that will allow young brides to continue their education also sets them up for better futures. Educating girls will give them more economic opportunities to support themselves and their family. Providing economic opportunities for parents and girls will ease the burden of poverty and aid in ending the cycle. Sadly, the only alternative for some girls to avoid a forced marriage is to take on a full time job. For some, child labor is preferable to forced marriage.
The UN recently conducted a session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women to discuss how to reduce and eventually prevent child marriage. They attempted to examine the problems caused by child marriage and the lasting effects on girls. The Commission has connected child marriage to high rates of infant mortality and maternal death. They aim to reduce these tragedies as well. The World YWCA has spearheaded efforts to pass a resolution against child marriage and gain support by working with individual countries and organizations.
Legally many countries can enforce existing laws for marriage ages. The question is how does the government enforce a law that challenges tradition? Will actual arrests work? Or would fines be a better deterrent? A local police force would have to be retrained to address illegal child marriages. The message would also have to reach parents and communities to be effective. Outreach and education on the real life consequences and alternatives may help to convince more parents not to frce their daughters to marry young. Human Rights Organizations have also put pressure on politicians in several countries to create new laws setting the marriage age at 18.
Child marriage drastically cuts short a girl’s childhood and cuts off her potential. Her independence, autonomy, and future opportunities are taken away by adults. Child brides often endure an avalanche of horrid physical abuses and conditions. In too many cases they meet with an early death. Child marriage is a human rights issue. It is an issue that everyone worldwide should be concerned about.The Rawans of the world deserve to skip and jump, to laugh lightly and innocently, to play make believe and have tea parties. They don’t deserve funerals. They deserve a childhood.
*originally published as part of a series with Elevate the World