TODAY, the leading causes of death for 15- to 19-year-old girls worldwide are suicide and childbirth.
Let that sink in.
The prevalence of deaths from childbirth complications is largely due to the widespread practice of child marriage. Fifteen million underage girls become wives every year, and 90% of all teen pregnancies occur in wedlock. Because child marriage occurs most often in underdeveloped countries, girl brides who become pregnant may have little or no access to lifesaving medical interventions, leaving them five times more likely to die from childbirth complications than older mothers.
Suicide — which only recently overtook childbirth as the number-one cause of death for older teen girls worldwide — is also related to the practice of forced marriage and all its horrors. Maternal mortality rates for older teens are dropping, thereby allowing suicide to creep up to its insidious number-one spot. This could mean that child marriage is becoming less common, or it could mean that medical treatment and childbirth education are reaching rural areas of developing countries.
However, for the sake of young women everywhere, we need to be talking about child marriage for what it is: a deadly epidemic. It’s a health crisis, one that keeps women in cycles of domestic violence, poverty, high-risk childbirth, and premature death. Attempts to outlaw it do little for young girls living in rural areas where such legislation is difficult to enforce.
Child marriage is most prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. In developing countries, one-third of young women are married before they turn 18. In Niger, as many as three-quarters of young wives are, or were, child brides, and in Ethiopia, two-thirds of child brides are raped by their husbands before they begin menstruating. These young women are at much greater risks for HIV and domestic abuse, and their babies are 50% more likely to die than those born to older mothers.
The outlook for child brides is grim. People everywhere, and women in particular, should be concerned with eradicating the practice completely. It may seem like a tall order, but preventing child marriage may be as simple as providing families with the tools to educate their daughters.
No, it really is that simple.
We often think of child marriage as a practice entrenched in religion and culture: inseparable from the two. The prevalent assumption of Westerners — steeped in Orientalist stereotypes — has it that brides in developing, religiously-conservative countries must be virginal in order to find a husband, so their families try to marry them off as young as possible. However, the non-profit NGO, Population Council, has discovered that our assumptions may be entirely wrong.
First, let’s begin with what is true. It’s true that, because daughters aren’t educated enough to bring in the same incomes as male children — and because, in many cultures, families must pay dowries to their new in-laws — the decision to find husbands for young girls is often financial as well as religious. The Population Council found that providing economic incentives, such as giving valuable livestock to families for each year their daughters remained in school, was instrumental in keeping the girls in class and out of early marriages. In Mozambique, where 56% of girls are married as children, only 10% of those who attend secondary school will be married before the age of 18.
The NGO didn’t stop with goats and chickens, however. Population Council discovered that giving girls practically anything to make consistent school attendance possible reduces their chances of marrying before they turn 18. When they gave 12- to 14-year-old Ethiopian girls basic school supplies — notebooks, pens, and pencils — those girls were 94% less likely than their peers to marry within three years.
Keeping pubescent girls in school is a difficult task, however, because most young women in the developing world do not have access to menstrual products. Half of all Ugandan girls will marry as children, even though child marriage is illegal in the country. Adolescent girls in rural Uganda miss an average 11% of each school year because they do not have access to menstrual products, due to financial and geographical constraints. Providing these young students with the resources to make reusable menstrual pads is essential in enabling them to finish school, which, as we’ve seen, can increase their chances of marrying on their own terms.
Research unrelated to child marriage has shown that having books in the home increases children’s academic performance, regardless of their country’s state of development or ideology. This means girls with access to books at home have better chances of being accepted into higher education programs, giving them many more opportunities for self-sufficiency and real choices about whom and when they marry.
First, however, we must make sure they can stay in school long enough to graduate, and the solution to that problem is relatively simple: provide them and their families with economic support that is directly related to girls’ health and education.