Build­ing the ev­i­dence base to end child mar­riage

Bhutan Times - - Home - Yarika Yasukawa ( Yoriko Yasukawa, Asia-Pa­cific Re­gional Di­rec­tor, United Na­tions Pop­u­la­tion Fund (UNFPA) & Jean Gough, South Asia Re­gional Di­rec­tor, United Na­tions Chil­dren Fund (UNICEF)

Rekha (not her real name), who lives in the Rang­pur Di­vi­sion of Bangladesh, got mar­ried when she was just 13 years old – “just after my first men­stru­a­tion”, as she re­calls. A year later the 14-year-old had a child of her own, join­ing the ranks of the thou­sands upon thou­sands of ado­les­cent moth­ers in a coun­try where child mar­riage re­mains wide­spread, even though the le­gal age of mar­riage is 18 for fe­males and 21 for males.

Rekha’s story is far from un­usual. Al­most one in two girls in South Asia – in coun­tries in­clud­ing Bangladesh, In­dia and Nepal -- will marry be­fore turn­ing 18, and one in six will marry be­fore the age of 15, if cur­rent rates con­tinue. While the prac­tice of child mar­riage has de­clined in South Asia over time, it nev­er­the­less re­mains far too high. Child mar­riage is a prac­tice that pri­mar­ily af­fects girls but boys too. While a much smaller num­ber of boys are mar- ried as chil­dren, there are also child grooms in the re­gion, who marry even younger child brides.

For lit­er­ally mil­lions of girls like Rekha, child mar­riage vi­o­lates their hu­man rights. It threat­ens their lives and health, as well as their fu­ture prospects, ex­pos­ing them to early preg­nancy, and in­creas­ing their vul­ner­a­bil­ity to ex­ploita­tion and abuse. Child mar­riage, quite sim­ply, robs them of their fu­ture.

As the ev­i­dence shows, girls who marry young of­ten be­come preg­nant while they are still ado­les­cents, putting them at risk of com­pli­ca­tions in preg­nancy or child­birth – com­pli­ca­tions that are a lead­ing cause of death among older ado­les­cents in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries.

They are also more likely to ex­pe­ri­ence vi­o­lence, in­clud­ing sex­ual vi­o­lence, than girls who marry over the age of 18, and to be more ex­posed to sex­u­ally trans­mit­ted dis­eases and HIV.

When they marry, girls are of­ten forced to drop out of school so they can as­sume house­hold re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, deny­ing their right to com­plete their ed­u­ca­tion. Child mar­riage lim­its their op­por­tu­ni­ties in­clud­ing their job prospects, and has long term ef­fects on their fam­i­lies.

It also has neg­a­tive im­pacts on their chil­dren. A re­cent global study in five mid­dlein­come coun­tries shows that chil­dren born to moth­ers 19 years or younger have a 20-30 per cent in­creased risk of low birth weight and pre-term birth com­pared to moth­ers aged 20-24 years. More­over, they have a 30-40 per cent in­creased risk of stunt­ing and fail­ure to com­plete sec­ondary school­ing.

While many coun­tries in South Asia have laws in place to pre­vent child mar­riage, the prac­tice per­sists. Of­ten, at the state and com­mu­nity level, tra­di­tional and cus­tom­ary laws still al­low girls younger than 18 to marry with the con­sent of par­ents and other au­thor­i­ties. Un­equal power re­la­tions be­tween men and women, women’s and girls’ re­stricted rights and op­por­tu­ni­ties, and norms which place a higher value on sons than daugh­ters re­in­force the prac­tice. And, not sur­pris­ingly, vul­ner­a­bil­ity to child mar­riage in­creases dur­ing crises when fam­ily and so­cial struc­tures are dis­rupted – for ex­am­ple when fam­i­lies are sep­a­rated dur­ing nat­u­ral dis­as­ters or con­flicts, or when they are faced with eco­nomic hard­ships that prompt par­ents to marry off their un­der­age daugh­ters.

Coun­tries around the world have com­mit­ted to “Elim­i­nate all harm­ful prac­tices such as child, early and forced mar­riage, and fe­male gen­i­tal mu­ti­la­tion” in the Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment Goals (SDGs) that un­der­pin the 2030 Agenda whose cen­tral pledge is to leave no one be­hind.

UNFPA and UNICEF are work­ing to­gether to end child mar­riage through a multi-coun­try ini­tia­tive to pre­vent chil­dren, from mar­ry­ing too young, and sup­port those al­ready mar­ried. In part­ner­ship with gov­ern­ments in South Asia, we are im­ple­ment­ing proven strate­gies for change: keep­ing chil­dren – es­pe­cially girls -- in school, in­creas­ing their ac­cess to health care, ed­u­cat­ing their par­ents and com­mu­ni­ties, in­creas­ing eco­nomic sup­port to fam­i­lies, and putting in place and en­forc­ing leg­is­la­tion. Just this week, our agen­cies are host­ing a meet­ing of ex­perts from South Asia and around the world to share and build the ev­i­dence base for change.

Strong part­ner­ships at all lev­els are re­quired to end child mar­riage. The scale of the prob­lem re­quires all of us -- gov­ern­ments, lo­cal ac­tors, the global com­mu­nity and the United Na­tions -- to act to­gether to end child mar­riage. All of us need to join hands to give back to chil­dren, par­tic­u­larly girls like Rekha, their choices, their dreams, their fu­tures – and their child­hoods.

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