Posted on Thursday, September 3rd, 2009 at 1:17 am
Author: Renee Martin
In recent years there has been growing awareness of the ways in which early marriage can be detrimental to the lives of women. Feminists are continually derided for describing patriarchy as a system that acts in real and systemic ways, but there can be no greater proof of its catastrophic effects than underage marriage. Despite the sure knowledge that child marriage leads to early pregnancy, which often results in fistula, early death and poverty, the practice continues to occur across the globe. On the continent of Africa, for example, child marriage continues to be an issue.
In Niger, three quarters of young girls will be married before the age of eighteen. A girl is raised to understand that her destiny is to marry and produce children. Education is seen as a waste because whatever girls do in life will only profit the household of her husband’s family. Ninety percent of Niger’s women are illiterate and without education, and they have no chance to end the vicious cycle of poverty. This legacy is then passed to their children, who are married before their time, thus maintaining a continual cycle of ignorance.
The birthrate is extremely high, with the national average being eight children per woman. According to the United Nations Population Fund:
“Girls younger than 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s, and pregnancy is the leading cause of death worldwide for women ages 15 to 19. Adolescent childbirth is dangerous for the infant as well as the mother. The underdeveloped bodies of girls can lead to complications during childbirth and the death of the child. Infants born to adolescent mothers are much more likely to die than those born to women in their 20s”
There is an insistence that Western culture has infected the young with a rabid form of sexuality and therefore, as a way of controlling this behaviour, many believe that child marriage is unavoidable. In the past, men would wait until girls reached the age of majority before initiating sex, yet today child brides are forced into intimacy as young as twelve or thirteen, if not younger. The virginity of a woman is highly prized and it is considered shameful for a woman to be pregnant outside of wedlock. Child marriage is considered to reduce the risk of this shame and thus, family honour is placed above the best interest of girls.
The legal age of marriage in India is eighteen and yet child marriage continues to be a cultural phenomenon. The state has increased the penalties for anyone forcing their daughter to marry before the legal age, but locals regularly ignore the law and hold ceremonies in remote areas in the middle of the night. Girls are married as young as three and have no awareness that the ceremony that they are participating in will lead to a lifetime of drudgery and poverty.
Girls are viewed as just another mouth to feed and when forced to live on less than 1USD per day, the tendency to desire an end to the burden is overwhelming. According to an ICRW study conducted by Bihar and Jharkland in India in 2004, girls who are married before the age of eighteen are twice as likely to beaten, slapped, or threatened by their husbands than girls that marry later. If a person is not seen as constituting any value it makes it that much easier to abuse them.
Education is once again seen as secondary for these children. While boys may learn and play, young girls are quickly put to work, training for a life of domestic servitude that is to come. Young women don’t even know that other options may exist for them. In the poor communities of India, much potential is lost because women are viewed as little more than an outlet for sexual drives and producing babies. Once the child moves from her parents’ home to that of her husband, her education is summarily ended and with it any chance that she can escape.
Guatemala is known for its beauty, however, very few are aware of the phenomenon of child marriage that occurs within the native Mayan community. It is understood that young girls are easier to control and, therefore, are a perfect match for adult men. By the age of fourteen or fifteen most Mayan girls are forced to stop school and prepare for a life of domestic servitude. Even though these girls may be as young as thirteen, they are understood to be women by the men that marry them. High rates of alcoholism, as well as domestic abuse, mean a very precarious existence.
No matter what country we examine, wherever child marriage is practiced the end result is quite negative for girls. You will note that the most common characteristic between all areas explored in this piece is a lack of education. This is intentional because an education would allow young women different options or even the ability to escape an intolerable situation.
The men that are marrying these children are abusers and they are not interested in relationships based in respect and reciprocity. We know that this is about control and ownership and it is necessary that, whenever possible, we support those institutions dedicated to educating young women.
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