Kainat and Shahzed, now ages 14 and 15 respectively, sit together at their mother’s house in northwest Pakistan. They were sold into marriage by their mother in 2009 to cover family debt. Shahzed (right) was sold for 40,000 or about $493; Kainat was sold for 28,000 rupees ($344), in part to pay for her father’s funeral. Photo courtesy of Women of Vision http://womenofvision.org/
Marriage with children
Each day, roughly 25,000 girls under the age of 18 are married without their free and full consent, compelled by parents and families for reasons ranging from financial need to ancient custom. It adds up to more than 10 million young girls married each year; one in seven of them less than 15 years old.
Even in the 21st century, the phenomenon of child marriage remains startlingly, appallingly widespread, most notably in portions of Asia and Africa. On October 11, the United Nations will sponsor its first International Day of the Girl Child, an effort to promote awareness and support for the rights for young girls who, quite often, are doomed to invisible lives of domestic deprivation, disease and despair.
The UN day will be echoed by a schedule of events at UC San Diego’s Calit2 Auditorium in Atkinson Hall, beginning with opening remarks by Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla and comments by Ramesh Rao, PhD, director of Calit2, and Steffanie A. Strathee, PhD, associate dean of Global Health Sciences at UCSD, followed by a public discussion led by Anita Raj, PhD, a professor in the division of Global Public Health and the leading academic scholar on girl child marriage.
In addition, there will be a live-stream broadcast of the UN Panel discussion on child marriage in New York City, featuring Nobel laureate and former South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and a local Q&A with experts. The day’s full agenda can be found here.
“Our goal is to increase awareness of girl child marriage,” said Raj, “and to highlight and build upon the growing collaborations at UCSD and in San Diego to address this and other concerns related to the unequal treatment of women and girls globally.”
Child marriage – or enforced cohabitation, which amounts to essentially the same thing – is profoundly damaging, both to the young girls and to their societies. According to numerous studies, girls who are married off too young are more likely to be illiterate, have children while they are still children themselves, suffer from disease and become socially isolated. Conversely, other studies show that in countries where women are educated and empowered, standards of living, health and economic opportunity are improved overall.
“Our research and that of others shows that early marriage of girls is a leading cause of high maternal and infant mortality globally; these young wives and mothers are also more likely to experience violence from husbands and in-laws,” Raj said.
Though marriage by mutual consent is recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (which points out that underage children aren’t mature enough to make an informed decision about life partners), Raj said efforts to reduce rates of girl child marriage have produced mixed results.
In a paper published earlier this year, for example, she found that marriage rates for girls under the age of 14 in India, Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh – the South Asian countries with the highest historical rates of child marriage – have significantly declined since 1991. On the other hand, the rate among girls aged 16 and 17 continues largely unchanged or, in the case of Bangladesh, has increased 36 percent.
“Our findings are heartening in terms of eliminating the practice among very young girls, but not among older girls,” Raj said. “There needs to be a greater focus on prevention of marriage among later adolescents. If we cannot impact reduction of marriage in this age group, we’ll continue to see inadequate change on reduction of girl child marriage as a whole.”