Early Marriage: Harmful Traditional Practice

By: Pan Mohamad Faiz K.W.[2]

Marriage before the age of 18 is a reality for many young women. In many parts of the world parents encourage the marriage of their daughters while they are still children in hopes that the marriage will benefit them both financially and socially, while also relieving financial burdens on the family.

In actuality, child marriage is a violation of human rights, compromising the development of girls and often resulting in early pregnancy and social isolation, with little education and poor vocational training reinforcing the gendered nature of poverty.

The right to ‘free and full’ consent to a marriage is recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – with the recognition that consent cannot be ‘free and full’ when one of the parties involved is not sufficiently mature to make an informed decision about a life partner. The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women mentions the right to protection from child marriage in article 16, which states: “The betrothal and the marriage of a child shall have no legal effect, and all necessary action, including legislation, shall be taken to specify a minimum age for marriage…”[3]

While marriage is not considered directly in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, child marriage is linked to other rights – such as the right to express their views freely, the right to protection from all forms of abuse, and the right to be protected from harmful traditional practices – and is frequently addressed by the Committee on the Rights of the Child. Child marriage was also identified by the Pan-African Forum against the Sexual Exploitation of Children as a type of commercial sexual exploitation of children.[4]

Young married girls are a unique, though often invisible, group. Required to perform heavy amounts of domestic work, under pressure to demonstrate fertility, and responsible for raising children while still children themselves, married girls and child mothers face constrained decision-making and reduced life choices. Boys are also affected by child marriage but the issue impacts girls in far larger numbers and with more intensity.

UNICEF’s Innocenti Research Centre published the digest Early Marriage: Child Spouses in 2001, exploring both the reasons behind the perpetuation of child marriage and its harmful impact. The digest provides guidelines towards ending the practice of child marriage through changing attitudes within families and societies, expanding opportunities for education, offering appropriate support to families and children, and working to ensure that all children – girls and boys – are recognized as valuable members of society. The digest deliberately focuses on unions that are recognized as marriages in either statutory or customary law.[5]

Cohabitation – when a couple lives together as if married – raises the same human rights concerns as marriage. Where a girl lives with a man and takes on the role of caregiver for him, the assumption is often that she has become an adult woman, even if she has not yet reached the age of 18. Additional concerns due to the informality of the relationship – for example, inheritance, citizenship and social recognition – might make girls in informal unions vulnerable in different ways than those who are in formally recognized marriages.

Therefore, the following study considers girls in both formal marriage and in cohabitation to determine relationships between early unions (within or outside of marriage) and socio-economic and demographic variables, characteristics of the union, as well as knowledge and access related to reproductive and sexual health. The literature suggests that many factors interact to place a child at risk of marriage. Poverty, protection of girls, family honour and the provision of stability during unstable social periods are suggested by Innocenti as significant factors in determining a girl’s risk of becoming married while still a child.[6]

Jenson and Thornton found little overall change in the average age at marriage for age cohorts born between 1950 and 1970 in most regions, as well as little change in the incidence of child marriage. Focusing primarily on Benin, Colombia, India and Turkey, Jenson and Thornton noted strong correlations between a woman’s age at marriage and the level of education she achieves, the age at which she gives birth to her first child and the age of her husband. Women who married at younger ages were more likely to believe that it is sometimes acceptable for a husband to beat his wife and were more likely to experience domestic violence themselves.[7]

The age gap between partners is thought to contribute to these abusive power dynamics and to increase the risk of untimely widowhood,[8] although Westoff notes that older husbands may be better providers for the household. Closely related to the issue of child marriage is the age at which girls become sexually active.[9]

The relationship between age at marriage and age at first sexual intercourse is examined here with an eye to fertility trends; however, it is important to note that trends indicate that, while in some countries marriage may be increasingly delayed, sexual activity is not, leading to a greater incidence of pregnancy outside of union.[10]

Women who are married before the age of 18 tend to have more children than those who marry later in life. According to Bhattacharya, 97 percent of women surveyed in India in 1992-1993 did not use any contraception before their first child was born.[11]

However, the Population Council and UNICEF found that, in Pakistan, a substantial number of young married women indicated an interest in the use of contraception in the future.[12] Pregnancy-related deaths are known to be a leading cause of mortality for both married and unmarried girls between the ages of 15 and 19, particularly among the youngest of this cohort.[13]

Protection from HIV/AIDS is another reason for child marriage. Parents seek to marry off their girls to protect their health and their honour, and men often seek younger women as wives as a means to avoid infection. In some contexts, however, the evidence does not support this hypothesis and practice. Bhattacharya found that in India, 75 percent of people living with HIV/AIDS are married.[14] In fact, the demand to reproduce and the stigma associated with safe-sex practices lead to very low condom use among married couples worldwide, and heterosexual married women who report monogamous sexual relationships with their husbands are increasingly becoming a high-risk group for HIV/AIDS.[14]

In 2003, UNICEF and partners agreed to focus on five indicators related to child marriage:
■ Percentage of women first in union by age 18 by age group (15–19, 20–24 and 45–49)
■ Percentage of girls 15–19 years of age currently in union
■ Spousal age difference
■ Percentage of women currently in a polygynous union by age groups
■ Percentage of ever-married women who were directly involved in the choice of
their first husband or partner.

The context and indicators related to child marriage and cohabitation can be approached through the examination of several age groups. One approach is to consider all women in a society. Another would be to observe the situation of girls aged 15–19 to determine the number of girls currently in union and the characteristics associated with that age group. However, the possibility of gauging how many of those girls will be married or in union by their 18th birthday is more complex because many have not yet reached the age of 18. Looking at the 20–24 age group is simpler and allows for the inclusion of all girls who were married or in union by age 18 within the closest time period for which complete data are available.

The term ‘child marriage’ will be used to refer to both formal marriages and informal unions in which a girl lives with a partner as if married before the age of 18. The report presents a global assessment of child marriage levels, differentials in child marriage rates according to socio-economic and demographic variables, characteristics of the union, and knowledge and access to sexual and reproductive health information and materials.

Statistical associations between indicators can reveal potential linkages in programming to promote the delay of marriage and point to opportunities to integrate advocacy and behaviour-change campaigns toward the prevention of child marriage and a multivariate analysis allows for the illumination of the net effect of each variable. Anomalies to general trends are often highlighted in the text in order to direct programmers and researchers towards case examples that may require further study or circumstances that may provide models for eradication efforts. ۩

[1] Based on research paper from UNICEF – 2005.

[2] Writer is a Postgraduate Student of Master of Comparative Law (M.C.L.) at Faculty of Law, University of Delhi and Master of Political Science at Indira Gandhi University.

[3] The full text of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women is available at http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/text/econvention.htm.

[4] Mikhail, S., ‘Child marriage and child prostitution: Two forms of sexual exploitation’, Gender and Development, vol. 10, no. 1, 2002, pp. 43–49.

[5] UNICEF, Early Marriage: Child Spouses, UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, Florence, 2001.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Jenson, R. and R. Thornton, ‘Early female marriage in the developing world’, Gender and Development,vol. 11, no. 2, 2003, pp. 9–19.

[8] Tiemoko, R., ‘The Gender Age Gap: Marriage and rights in the Côte d’Ivoire’, Development, vol. 44, no. 2, 2001, pp. 104–106.

[9] Westoff, C., Trends in Marriage and Early Childbearing in Developing Countries; DHS Comparative Reports No. 5, ORC Macro, Maryland, 2003.

[10] Calves, A., ‘Marginalization of African Single Mothers in the Marriage Market: Evidence from Cameroon’, Population Studies, vol. 53, no. 3,1999, pp. 291–301.

[11] Bhattacharya, G., ‘Sociocultural and Behavioural Contexts of Condom Use in Heterosexual Married Couples in India: Challenges to HIV prevention programmes’, Health Education & Behavior, vol. 31, no. 1, 2004, pp. 101–117.

[12] Sathar, Z. et al., Adolescents and Youth in Pakistan 2001–2002: A nationally representative survey, UNICEF and Population Council, Islamabad, 2002.

[13] Otoo-Oryortey, N. and S. Pobi, ‘Early Marriage and Poverty: Exploring links and key policy issues’, Gender and Development, vol. 11, no. 2, 2003, pp.42–51.

[14] Bhattacharya, G., op. cit.


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