Early or child marriage is a global challenge which has continued to pose high health risks among children, especially the girl child.  Early marriage, which can be defined as a legal or customary marital union before the age of eighteen years for one or more partners, poses a great threat to a child’s well-being as it constitutes multiple violations of a child’s fundamental rights.

 

In a broader context around the world, early or child marriages have proved to have profound adverse impacts on girls in physical, intellectual, psychological and emotional ways.  This is so because children are not developmentally capable to understanding – nor of handling – the responsibilities that come along with marriage. Early marriage can have serious consequences for children and these may include:

  • Denial of childhood and adolescence: the loss of childhood and adolescent, the forced sexual relation and the denial of freedom and personal development have profound psychosocial and emotional consequences on girls.

  • Denial of education: once married, girls tend not to go to school which inhibits their opportunities for the future.

  • Health problems: this includes premature pregnancies which cause higher rates of maternal and infant mortality.  Teenage girls are also more vulnerable to contracting sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS. This is because adolescents at this stage are less likely to perceive the dangers associated with these diseases and may not be able to decide on having  protected sex due to lack of more health and reproductive information.

  • Abuse: abuse is very common in child marriages, particularly given that they are regarded as a possession than an autonomous being.  The marriage of a young girl to an older man creates an inequitable power imbalance that sees the man feel entitled to her attention, her body, and her reproductive capacity – things she is not enable to fight against, though she might want to.  In societies that continue to practice early marriage, children who refuse to marry per the wishes of their parents are often punished or even chased out of the family.

Child marriage is most prevalent in South Asia and Sub–Saharan Africa, where there, as data reflects, high poverty levels actively contribute to early marriage practices.  Countries or societies lacking in educational infrastructure such as schools, which play a pivotal role in their personal and professional development, sometimes tend to stick to more traditional cultural practices – even those that are inherently harmful, such as early marriage.  Religious and cultural practices that defined puberty as the age of maturation into adulthood often take this too literally, and consider a girl ready for marriage when she reaches puberty.  From a religious point of view, many problems in society today are aligned with sex outside of marriage, which is forbidden by most major religions. Since humans develop sexual urges during puberty, some religions consider early marriage a neat solution to deal with natural sexual desire.

Globally, early marriages mainly affect children from poor families, those in rural areas, school dropouts and children from families with limited or no employment opportunities, as parents are more likely to marry off their child so as to benefit from the payment of bride price or dowry: money paid to the family of their child’s betrothed, depending on cultural practice.  In Zambia, the family of the bridegroom pays the dowry to the bride’s family, but in India, the bride’s family will pay the groom’s.  In most cases, girls are significantly more likely than boys to be married before the age of eighteen, which is directly correlated with the severe deficit of opportunity experienced by females than their male peers that continues for the remainder of their lifetimes.

FACTORS CONTRIBUTING TO THE INCREASE OF EARLY MARRIAGES

Although poverty can be said to be one of the contributors to early marriages, it is however evident that globally, early marriage has been rising due to traditional and cultural practices that prepares girls or women for marriage and the domestic duties.  For example, in my village, Manyika in Chongwe district to be specific, when a girl comes of age or reaches puberty, say seven to twelve years, she is confined in a room where an elderly woman will teach her on how to take care of her home and the husband. All this is simply done to prepare the girl child for marriage.  It is undoubtedly agreeable that traditional and cultural practices that surround early marriage reflect values and beliefs held by members of a community for periods spanning from one generation to the other.

It is very important to point out that some of these cultural practices are not beneficial to the well-being of girls and women.  Such practices include female genital mutilations (FGM), force- feeding women, in most cases most of all these practices are aimed at controlling the sexuality of the woman, preparing her for marriage and child-bearing.  For instance, it is believed that, by mutilating the female genital organ, the sexuality of the woman will be controlled… but above all, it is to ensure a woman’s virginity before marriage and chastity thereafter.  Practices which prevent women to using contraceptives, nutritional taboos, traditional birth practices instead of midwifery care, familiar preferences towards having sons (and its implications for the status of the girl child), and the commercialization of the bride price create a chasm between the rights of women and men when it comes to sexual health and rights, and bodily autonomy.  Some communities generally place a lower value on women and have always believed that the only thing a girl child can achieve in life is to get married, bear children, and raise them.  As a result of this, they prefer sending male children to school and give less attention to girls, who are more likely to fall victim to unintended misfortunates such as early marriage or unwanted pregnancy.

Despite the inherently harmful nature and violations of international human rights laws, such cultural practices have persisted because there is still not enough commitment by leaders to harshly challenge and condemn these practices.  Thankfully, the international community has now increasingly become aware of these practices and there is increasingly more commitment being made towards achieving equality between the sexes.  There is more recognition today than there once was of the simply reality that an equitable society cannot be attained if the fundamental human rights of half of human society – namely, girls and women - continue to be denied and violated in the name of traditional and cultural practices.

Going forward, it will be of great importance for nations at the local, regional and international level to join hands together and find better approaches that aim at addressing cultural practices that reduce women to sex objects or simply chid bearers. Every human person whether man or woman has intrinsic dignity, “worthiness” and deserve unconditional respect, regardless of age, sex, health status, social or ethnic origin, political ideas, religion, or criminal history. If violated, this can be considered discrimination. In other words, this respect is owed to every individual by the mere fact that he or she is a "member of the human family" (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, Preamble). This intrinsic worthiness is widely recognized by international law as the source of all human rights. In this respect, both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) of 1966 affirm that human rights “derive from the inherent dignity of the human person.

 

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