The below text is copyright, “Broken Bodies – Broken Dreams: Violence against Women Exposed.”:
“The Legal Context
Despite national and international law pertaining to minimum age and consent in marriage, many young girls around the world are still at risk. In 15 countries, the legal age of marriage is 16. Even when legal protections against child marriage do exist, they may be ambiguous, allow for dual existence of customary and civil law and have limited enforcement mechanisms. Some legal provisions, for example, may allow traditional law to override statutory law, and therefore restrictions against early marriage in state law may not apply to customary marriages.
Moreover, in countries “where there is a discrepancy between the minimum age of marriage for boys and girls, it is consistently lower for girls.” According to CEDAW, these discrepancies “assume incorrectly that women have a different rate of intellectual development from men, or that their stage of physical and intellectual development at marriage is immaterial.” The national laws of Cameroon, Jordan, Morocco, Uganda and Yemen do not specifically accord women the right to consent before marriage. Among the “vast majority” of countries around the world that have codified a women’s equal right to choose a marriage partner, legal provisions are often “merely symbolic” – and as a result unenforced or subject to wide exceptions.
Legislative provisions in many countries allow for child marriage with parental consent, which in the context of traditional societies does little to preserve the rights of girl children. In Algeria, Chad, Costa Rica, Lebanon, Libya, Romania and Uruguay, the law allows a perpetrator of rape – including rape of a minor – to be pardoned of his crime if he marries his victim. In the case of a young victim, stigma, shame, coercion and ignorance of the law, along with a multitude of other factors, may prevent her from exercising her legal right to refuse such a marriage. In Ethiopia, illegal “abduction marriages”, where men kidnap young girls and consummate the marriage with rape, remain prevalent in some rural settings. In a study conducted among 227 Ethiopian wives, 60 percent said they had been abducted before age 15, and 93 percent before age 20.
The failure to prioritize women’s and girl’s rights
Child marriage predominates in traditional societies around the world, where the desires and needs of parents and community may override considerations for the individual development and wellbeing of a girl child. The patriarchal values buttressing these cultures further erode any rights that might otherwise be afforded a young girl. The fact that marrying young maximizes a female’s reproductive lifespan and thus ensures large families justifies the custom of child marriage and ignores the health impact of such a tradition on young wives.
The prevalence of child marriage also may be linked to the economics of poverty. Young girls in certain communities in Africa will generate more bride price because as virgins they are less likely to have HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. Conversely, African parents in resource-poor settings who are worried about not being able to find men who can afford a high bride price may prevent a daughter from completing schooling for fear that an education will increase her cost. Once a girl has left school, she is much more likely to get married. In the Asian societies where dowry customs dominate, girls may be married off early because dowry doubles once a girl matures. In Bangladesh, for example, dowry doubles once a girl reaches the age of 15, because she is considered less “marriageable”.
Other motives for child marriage include controlling a young girl’s sexuality and curbing any manifestations of independence. Committing a pubescent or even prepubescent girl to marriage reduces the likelihood of premarital liaisons, which is important when the sexual purity of girls and women is seen as a community prerogative and the basis of family and tribal honour. In societies where subservience to husbands is requisite in marriage, young brides offer the additional benefit of being easier to mould into deferential wives.
Child marriage and gender-based violence
Child marriage is a form of gender-based violence that leads to a range of other forms of violence. Research suggests, for example, that sexual assault may be more common among wives who marry young, due at least in part to the power inequities between older husbands and younger wives. Indian girls from Calcutta who married early reported that their husbands had forced them to have intercourse before they had started menstruating. Despite protestations of pain and lack of desire, 80 percent of these girls said that their husbands continue to force them to have sexual relations.
Girls who marry early may also be at greater risk of physical violence at the hands of their husbands and in-laws. In Jordan, 26 percent of domestic incidents reported in 2000 were committed against wives who were under age 18. As with sexual violence, this increased risk may be associated with age and power differentials. Lack of social networks and economic assets, as well as low self-esteem, make child brides less likely to leave abusive husbands and more likely to tolerate the abuse. In studies in Benin, India and Turkey, for example, 62 percent to 67 percent of young wives – as opposed to 36 percent and 42 percent of older wives – believed that their husbands were justified in using physical violence against them.
Girls who try to escape early or abusive marriages risk retribution from their husbands as well as their natal families, including further abuse, imprisonment or even death. The Commission on the Status of Women in Pakistan, where the honour killings are often linked to domestic violence, reported in 1989 that “men are constantly fighting to retrieve their women because they have run away.” Data from prisons in Afghanistan’s capital city in Kabul in 2004 indicated that the majority of female inmates had been married before age 16, and that incarceration was highly correlated to child marriage. “Zabia” is one such case:
“When [Zabia] was 10 years old her parents sold her in marriage to a 50-year-old man who was deaf and dumb. She was raped on her wedding night. In the years that followed, [Zabia] ran away to her father’s house some seven or eight times. Every time she returned, her father beat her and held her in chains until her husband came to retrieve her. She finally escaped to the city, where she met a kind woman who took her in. After some time, [Zabia] met a young male relative of the woman, became engaged and married him. She had been happily married for six months and was pregnant when she told her second husband her true history. The second husband, who accepted her past, went to meet [Zabia’s] parents to tell them of her whereabouts and happy marriage and invited them to visit their daughter. Instead, [Zabia’s} parents reported the couple to the police, who imprisoned them for illegal marriage.”
Husbands of young wives are often significantly older, and therefore more likely to die before their wives. While it may seem a reprieve in cases of violent marriages, lack of property or inheritance rights, as well as high rates of illiteracy among young brides, puts those widows at great risk for multiple forms of exploitation. In certain parts of India, a girl whose husband has died may be given in nata to a widower in the family. Although officially designated his wife, she may become “the common property of all the men in the family.” In parts of Africa, a widow is remarried, according to the practice of levirate, to a brother of her deceased husband. Any resulting children are given the name of the deceased husband, thus ensuring the continuation of his lineage. If a widow refuses to marry her brother-in-law, she not only risks being cast out of his family, but also losing custody of her children and any rights to her husband’s property. Widowed women also can be traded as commodities in dispute negotiations between families or communities – given as a wife, for example, from one family to another to reinstate the honour of an aggrieved man and his clan.
The multiple health risks of child marriage
In addition to the physical dangers associated with domestic violence, child marriage poses many other health risks. Because of the greater permeability of their vaginal tissue and other biological factors like hormone fluctuations, girls are more vulnerable than mature women to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. Their age, limited life experience and inferior status also make it more difficult for young wives to negotiate safer sex.
While marriage to girls is considered a protective measure for husbands, it may have the opposite effect on their wives, especially in polygynous societies. In a recent study undertaken in Rwanda and cited in a United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report on child marriages, 25 percent of girls who became pregnant at 17 or younger were infected with HIV, even though many reported only having sex with their husbands. The study found that a higher incidence of HIV infection was directly correlated to a younger age of sexual intercourse and first pregnancy. In findings from rural Uganda, girls aged 13 to 19 who were HIV-positive were twice as likely to be married as girls who were HIV-negative. For young wives, “abstinence is not an option – those who try to negotiate condom use commonly face violence and rejection.”
The leading cause of death for 15- to 19-year-old girls worldwide is complications from pregnancy and child-bearing. According to public-health experts, for every girl that dies during pregnancy or childbirth, 30 more will suffer injuries, infections and disabilities. And the risks are not limited to the mother: If a girl is under the age of 18 when she gives birth, her baby’s chance of dying in its first year of life is 60 percent higher than that of a baby born to an older mother. Moreover, the extended reproductive span of a girl who is married early puts her and her children at risk due to a greater number of pregnancies and deliveries. According to one study, women who marry before age 19 will have two to four times more children than those who marry after age 25.
The additional burden of obstetric fistula
One of the most physically and psychologically debilitating effects of early child-bearing is fistula, a rupture of tissue that results in an opening between the vagina and the bladder or the rectum, or both, which is reparable only with surgery. Primarily caused by obstructed labour, fistula is closely linked to marriage and child-bearing among girls between 10 and 15 years of age. In one 1995 study in Niger, for example, 88 percent of women with fistula were in this age group when they were married. As will all pregnancy-related injuries, young married girls in resource-poor settings are least likely to get treatment for fistula. With leaking urine and feces, a malodorous girl suffering an untreated fistula is likely to be ostracized by her community and divorced by her husband.
Child marriage is so common in Ethiopia that doctors at the Fistula Hospital, based in the capital city of Addis Ababa, operate on approximately 1,200 girls a year. Those who are of and manage to find transport to the hospital are probably only a small proportion of the young women needing treatment.
An urgent human rights concern
The Forum on Marriage and the Rights of Women and Girls, from which much of the information included in this chapter has been drawn, is a network of nongovernmental organizations with international affiliates that shares “a vision of marriage as a sphere in which women and girls have inalienable rights.” The early work of the Forum highlighted the fact that very little is being achieved at either the international or national level to address the global problem of child marriage.
The Forum’s most recent report in 2003 emphasized that there is considerable work to be done to end the practice of child marriage. Much of this effort involves lobbying governments to adopt and enforce laws that both prohibit child marriage and ensure that girls have equal access to education. Just as important, however, is changing the attitude and behavior of community and religious leaders, whose complicity allows child marriage to continue. Finally, the Forum asked for increased support to programs that empower young girls, to help them realize that their futures need not be preordained by customs that deprive them of their rights to mental, social and physical wellbeing.
Agencies such as the United Nations Fund for Population Assistance and UNICEF have started to demand action to end child marriage, while international nongovernmental organizations, including Population Council and the International Center for Research on Women, have pioneered initiatives to research child marriage, raise awareness and inform policy discussion. Despite some of these gains, the magnitude of the problem requires greater effort, not only through prevention, but also through prevention, but also through supporting girls who are already in child marriages. Policy makers, elected officials and community and religious leaders, as well as individuals, all have a critical role in making a difference in the lives of girls and young women.”
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