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Girls Not Brides: Why Child Marriage Must Be Eliminated

Published on December 14th, 2019 at 01:00 am

By Kayla Hayempour

Young girls growing up in the United States are preoccupied with trivial things: first crushes, which nail color to choose, and their outfit for the first day of school. Other girls however, live a far less idealistic life. According UNICEF’s database on women and children, “Across the globe, levels of child marriage are highest in sub-Saharan Africa”(UNICEF 1). Young African girls are faced with harsh reality of forced marriages and pregnancies with adult men, when they themselves are only children. Young girls are highly sought after because they are pure, untouched, and impressionable, and can therefore be moulded to be submissive wives. Child marriage has existed in Africa since the continent’s infancy; the horrendous practice is rooted in Africa’s strict patriarchial society that deems women as, “less than.” While African leaders and supporters of child marriage think this to be true, it is clear to the rest of the world that the age-old practice is a violation of human rights at the most severe level. This heinous crime against women’s rights robs young girls of their childhood, and deprives them from having a successful future. Their education is halted, which leaves them with no life skills, and therefore powerless and fully dependent on their husbands. Furthermore, their physical and mental health are jeopardized, as rape and pregnancy are frequent occurances, and their bodies are not equipped to handle such strain. Lastly, forced child marriage threatens a girls’ safety, as displayed by the increased risk of spousal abuse and domestic violence. Due to these damaging ramifications, child marriage must be ended once and for all.

Forced child marriage in Africa halts any education an African girl recieves, and acts as a catalyst for heath and safety issues as well. Gender inequalities in Africa drive child marriage: since girls already aren’t valued by society, neither is their education. Moreover, girls are seen as economic burdens to families already struggling financially, so they are married off. Once they are married, there is no push for them to continue school, rather, the only knowledge they need is how to cook, clean, and care for children. Formal education however, is the key to ending child marriage all together. Educated girls are more confident and independent, because they develop skills to help fight for their own equality in marriage and other issues. In addition, education opens the door for economic opportunity; girls are no longer financially dependent (and therefore powerless) on their husbands, but they have the means and skills to find a job and make money for themselves and their family. Not only does this offset the poverty of the young girl and her family, but the girls in the workforce benefits Africa as a whole. According to Kingsley Ighobor, an author for the African Renewal sector of the United Nations, “$95 billion is the amount that sub-Saharan Africa loses yearly because of the gender gap in the labour market” (Ighobor). If girls received an education and, consequently, went into the workforce, Africa’s entire economy would be bolstered. Ultimately, this would set girls and women a step closer to true equality, by reinforcing the idea that girls are students and children, not brides. Furthermore, educated girls will eventually have educated children, which also decreases the chance of intergenerational poverty. According to a study done of illiterate caregivers in the Eastern Cape, South Africa by the University of the Western Cape, “Many children’s lack of educational advancement in the school system has complex origins, but that the illiteracy of their primary caregivers...is a leading cause” (University of the Western Cape 1). A mother who is literate and understands the importance of literacy is more likely to push their child to advance education and enter the working world, which leads to success for the entire family.

Education and health are two facets of the child marriage issue that are extremely interconnected. As documented by Sarah Suen from Hydra, the Interdisciplinary Journal of Social Sciences, “...countries with higher levels of female post-primary enrollment enjoy a series of aggregate health benefits that link to the next generation: i.e. lower infant mortality rates, lower rates of HIV and AIDS, and better child nutrition” (Suen 65). Given that forced pregnancy goes hand in hand with forced child marriage, the more knowledge a girl has on how to have protected sex and a healthy pregnancy, the better equipped she will be when she is actually pregnant. As implied by Hydra, HIV/AIDS is an epidemic among child brides and their partners. This is yet another issue education can combat. While young girls are virgins when they are married, it is expected that their husbands have ample sexual experience, which increases the risk of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). In fact, Nawal M. Nour, corresponding author to the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, found in her study, Health Consequences of Child Marriage in Africa, that “married girls [have] a 50% higher likelihood than unmarried girls of becoming infected with HIV. This risk [is] higher (59%) in Zambia” (Nour). If girls remain in school, they will learn about protected sex, as well as other ways to protect themselves from STDs, and unwanted pregnancies. In this way, education becomes its own form of contraception.

There are a myriad of negative consequences that can occur due to forced pregnancy of child brides. One of the most severe is death. Researchers Okereke Chinyere Ijeoma Uwakwe Joseph O, and Nwamuo Paul from The Journal of Educational and Social Research found in their study, Education an Antidote against Early Marriage for the Girl-Child, that, “there is a strong correlation between the age of a mother and maternal mortality. Girls ages 10-14 are five times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than women aged 20-24 and girls aged 15-19 are twice as likely to die” ( Ijeoma et al. 75). Given that young brides aren’t sexually or physically mature enough to deliver a child, doing so causes extreme bodily strain which can result in death. The death of the child bride also reinforces the institution of child marriage, because if a man’s wife dies in childbirth, he will seek another young girl to marry. On a less detrimental level, young girls are often plagued with obstetric fistula. An obstetric fistula is a complication where the tissues between a girl’s vagina and her bladder or rectum are damaged from the continuous pressure from the baby’s head stuck in the birth canal. The dead tissue falls off resulting in a hole through which the girl continuously leaks urine or feces. According to the organization Girls Not Brides in their article, Fistula, a Silent Tragedy for Child Brides, child marriage accounts for, “25% of known fistula cases” (Girls Not Brides). When a young girl gets an obstetric fistula, her husband believes she is useless and sends her back to live with her parents. Back at home she is shamed and isolated, because yet again, she is nothing but an economic burden to an already impoverished family.

Forced child marriage isolates a young girl and increases the risk of domestic violence, therby jepordizing her safety and wellbeing. The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) found that “...child marriage is associated with reduced mental health and well-being, particularly for women that marry at very young ages” (ICRW). This is due to a plethora of factors. Young girls are forced to marry so young, they miss out on the opportunity to make important social connections with their peers. In addition, child brides are forced to move out of their villages and into a new home where their husbands live. There, they are left to their own devices, and often end up feeling isolated and emotionally distressed because they have no one to interact with. Only exasperating the issue is the language barrier, as dialects vary from region to region and the young bride may not understand the dialect where she lives. This lack of connection and relationships also means that if the young girl is abused by her husband, she has nowhere to go and nobody to help her. She is powerless, and forced to endure the harsh treatment-if she fights back, the abuse will only get worse. In one of their studies the IRCW discovered that, “Girls who marry before 18 are more likely to experience domestic violence than their peers who marry later” (IRCW). This, just like forced child marriage all together, is as a result of Africa’s philosphy that men are the dominant figures, and women are subservient slaves. Abuse is a cruel way for husbands to assert and maintain their superiority.

In conclusion, forced child marriage is not only an epidemic in Africa, but a pandemic world wide. It robs young girls of a childhood and successful future, which has detrimental impacts on their education, health, and overall safety and wellbeing. While organizations such as Girls Not Brides are already fighting to protect the powerless young girls, more must be done to eliminate this violation of human rights. Lawmakers around the world must take action, and we, as citizens of the developed nations, must also fulfill our civic duty, and vote for leaders who will make real change in the right direction.

Works Cited

Ijeoma, Okereke Chinyere, et al. Education an Antidote against Early Marriage for the Girl-Child. Journal of Educational and Social Research, Aug. 2013, https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/8c31/4d8710377ab21a400fa9b3ae7610b763a904.pdf.

“A LIFE NOT CHOSEN: EARLY MARRIAGE AND MENTAL HEALTH.” ICRW, International Center for Research on Women, https://www.icrw.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/ICRW_EICMResearchBrief_v4.pdf.

“Child Marriage.” UNICEF DATA, UNICEF, Oct. 2019, https://data.unicef.org/topic/child-protection/child-marriage/.

“Child Marriage Facts and Figures - ICRW: PASSION. PROOF. POWER.” ICRW, International Center for Research on Women, https://www.icrw.org/child-marriage-facts-and-figures/.

“Economic Empowerment of Women Good for All | Africa Renewal.” United Nations, United Nations, Apr. 2019, https://www.un.org/africarenewal/magazine/april-2019-july-2019/economic-empowerment-women-good-all.

Girls Not Brides. “Education.” Girls Not Brides, https://www.girlsnotbrides.org/themes/education/.

Girls Not Brides. “Fistula, a Silent Tragedy for Child Brides.” Girls Not Brides, Girls Not Brides, 23 May 2018, https://www.girlsnotbrides.org/fistula-a-silent-tragedy-for-child-brides/.

Makunga, Barrington, et al. Illiteracy among Caregivers: Implications for Children’s Educational and Social Development. University of the Western Cape/Southern African Journal of Social Work and Social Development, https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/f9fb/87d76fa87fd73f45400cd0dca92eaa0d2952.pdf.

Nour, Nawal M. “Health Consequences of Child Marriage in Africa.” Emerging Infectious Diseases, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Nov. 2006, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3372345/.

“The Education of Women as a Tool in Development: Challenging the African Maxim.” Hydra Interdisciplinary Journal of Social Sciences, MSc International Development, https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/f5a7/32999a7b629843e6c3ca057fe02d9ca01eb9.pdf.