How is Marriage Ruining Young Girls' Lives?
Published October 31, 2016
When Nalongo was only 16 years old, she was forced to marry a man over twice her age. He treated her horribly, more like she was an object than she was a person. And five years later, she fled his home, taking her child with her. Now Nalongo is a caregiver in the Buwanda Kinship Project. But the road to her finding this place of peace was long, and made no easier by her early marriage. Joan, one of the women in our baking ministry in Uganda, has a similar story. She too was only 16 when she married a man who was 17 years her senior. He died 10 years into their marriage, leaving 26-year-old Joan alone with 5 children.
Worldwide, more than 700 million women alive today were married before their 18th birthday. More than one in three of these women (about 250 million) were married before the age of 15.
For those of us in more developed countries, the idea of a young girl, of 13, 14, 15, 16, marrying a much older man is generally seen as disgusting, not to mention illegal. But in the countries where many of our Kinship Projects are located, it still happens a lot. So many of the women involved in Kinship United and so many of the women who live in the communities around our Kinship Projects have had their lives altered significantly by marrying young.
Worldwide, more than 700 million women alive today were married before their 18th birthday. More than one in three of these women (about 250 million) were married before the age of 15. The countries with the highest child marriage rates are South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
Child marriage is almost always detrimental; it can completely derail the future of a young girl. The bad consequences of an early marriage are many, and the true benefits of these unions are few. And while child marriages are on the decline, it isn’t happening as fast as it needs to. Getting rid of child marriage could be truly transformative to cultures, and the individual lives of women. It would ensure that there would be no more stories that sounded like the stories of Nalongo and Joan. It would mean brighter futures for so many girls.
Why does child marriage happen?
There are a couple things that influence it. Child marriage and poverty are closely linked. The countries with the highest count of child marriages are all developing countries. In these countries, it’s been found that girls in poor families are 3x more likely to marry before the age of 18 than girls in wealthier families are. Child marriage is often driven by the family’s desire to find someone else to care for their daughter, so that way they have one less mouth to feed. Women are seen as having no economic value – and so their parents marry them off as a way to obtain a dowry.
Within these communities, child marriage is often seen as a way to reduce poverty. But, typically this isn’t true, as child brides often remain impoverished their entire lives. Continuing to attend school to gain skills that help them to support themselves is a much more effective way to escape the cycle of poverty.
So poverty is a main player in the continued existence of child marriage. But the patriarchal bias that exists in these countries is another huge contributor to child marriages. In so many countries around the world, women are simply not valued as much as men. Having a girl child is still a disappointment; boys are fundamentally more wanted in most families in the developing world. Because of this, early marriage disproportionately affects girls, and the system is often built off of the idea that girls have no say in who they marry, and when they marry. The assumption that a woman should be voiceless in these matters is paramount to most child marriages, and rooted deeply in patriarchal bias.
Detrimental Effects of Child Marriage
- Most girls who marry early drop out of school. They rarely finish their education, which leaves them without any sort of workable skill sets, or ability to support themselves. And the list of problems that not finishing their education causes girls is a whole different article worth of information (…and you can read it here!).
- Early marriages often result in babies being born to very young girls. These early pregnancies are downright dangerous, often killing the baby, the mother, or both. The girls’ bodies just aren’t ready to give birth yet, and this creates all sorts of problems. Human Rights Watch found that six of the married girls they interviewed had lost babies, and two of those girls had already lost two children. For girls between the ages of 15 and 19, pregnancy and childbirth are the leading causes of death worldwide. And even if both the mother and the baby survive the pregnancy, now a 14-year-old girl is a mother, left with the plethora of responsibilities that motherhood contains resting on her shoulders.
- Girls who marry early are far more likely to experience domestic violence. In India, a study found that child brides were twice as likely to report being beaten, slapped or threatened by their husbands as girls who married later. In Northern Ethiopia, a study found that 81% of child brides described their first sexual experience with their husbands as forced. That isn’t okay.
- Child brides are more likely to contract HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases than women who marry when they are older. They marry older men who have most likely already been sexually active, meaning their partners have a higher chance of having a sexually transmitted disease. It’s hard for the girls to assert their wishes to their older, more dominant husbands. Because of this, they have limited power in the negotiating of safe sex, and often know little about how to have safe sex.
Love marriages and child brides
Not all child marriages in the developing world are nonconsensual. These are referred to as “love marriages,” and are marriages that aren’t arranged by the children’s parents. They are arranged by the children themselves, sometimes in opposition to the wishes of their parents. They also sometimes occur when rumors of a sexual relationship between the two people start, and the children get married to dispel those rumors, even if they aren’t true. Sometimes, the couple will run away together in order to escape a forced marriage to someone else.
Although these marriages are different from arranged marriages, and do take the wishes and desires of the involved parties into consideration, they are still often motivated by the same social and economic factors that encourage arranged child marriages. They also often have many of the same negative results as the coerced marriages.
Remember Nalongo and Joan? After fleeing from her husband’s house, Nalongo found a place for herself as a caregiver in the Buwanda Kinship Project. Joan became an entrepreneur to support herself in the wake of her husband’s death, thanks to the skillsets that she learned in the Women of Worth Baking Outreach. But not all women who were child brides are able to find these opportunities.
For every happy ending, there are still so many stories that are ending in tragedy. There are girls who are dying in childbirth because their bodies are still too young to properly carry a child. There are girls contracting HIV/AIDS at the age of 14 because they don’t have the agency to demand safe sex. There are girls who never return to school because they were forced to get married instead.
Child marriages steals childhoods. And Kinship United is dedicated to restoring and protecting childhoods. We are committed to keeping our girls from becoming wives and mothers when they still should be in school, when they should still be studying and playing with their friends. Marriage should be a good thing, a sacred thing, not something that should cause pain and trauma in the lives of young girls.
Although child marriage is on a slow decline around the world, the practice is still disturbingly common in the poorest of countries. But there are ways to keep combatting it. The girls in our Kinship Homes are enrolled in school, and we fight to give them the advantages they need to ensure they will never find themselves in the trap of child marriage. Partnering with Kinship United is a way to fight against child marriage. Don’t let these girls lose their childhoods. They deserve a much broader future.
Humans Rights Watch || https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/09/07/our-time-sing-and-play/child-marriage-nepal
International Center for Research on Women || http://www.icrw.org/child-marriage-facts-and-figures
Girls Not Brides || http://www.girlsnotbrides.org/