CHILD MARRIAGES – Composing life just to nurture and neglect

CHILD MARRIAGES – Composing life just to nurture and neglect


“And Prince Charming and Cinderella got married and they lived happily ever after” …

She shut the book and jumped around with blissful glee. Cinderella was her favourite character and she had gotten married too.

Mother had given her the news only yesterday. On her next birthday, she would be a bride, just like Cinderella. Cinderella’s wedding dress was white and puffy with beautiful flowers sown on it. So, would be hers. Cinderella’s dainty shoes sparkled brightly. So, will hers. Hundreds of people in fancy dresses attended Cinderella’s wedding. Her own wedding was to be attended by almost the entire village too. Food and drink will flow and everyone would look upon her as she will enter in her sparkling gown. Just like it happened in Cinderella!

The only difference is, Cinderella was not made a bride when she was 12. But for girls between the ages of 12 and 17 in Egypt, it is a frequented practice. Hence, the above described account depicts the true mind-set of each child bride that ties the knot in Egypt. Years have not yet touched their innocent dispositions. Their faculties are pure, their hearts bright and their sensibilities are not yet open to vulnerable exposure. In short, they are only children being tied together in marriages that are too big for their breeches. Such is the example of the 12-year-old Omar and the 11-year-old Gharam who were engaged in a lavish ceremony near Cairo.

There are more than 1.2 billion adolescents in the world—and 90% reside in developing countries. Adolescence is commonly viewed as a time when young people focus on education, gain skills to be used in adulthood, and, perhaps, enter the workforce and into romantic relationships. However, for a large number of girls—especially those residing in the poorest countries—arranged, early marriages mark the end of their childhood and any possibility of further personal growth and development.

Child marriage is a violation of human rights and needs to be addressed worldwide by citizens, community organizations, local, and federal government agencies, as well as international organizations and civil society groups. Child marriage cuts across borders, religions, cultures, and ethnicities and can be found all over the world. Although sometimes boys are subjected to early marriage, girls are far more likely to be married at a young age.

Before questions are raised regarding the age of marriage envisaged by Islam and how puberty is put forth as a reasonable pretext for marriages, let us make a few things crystal clear. Islam has favoured early marriages in order to save the collective society from illicit relations, adultery and many such vices. But it has favoured ‘early’ marriages. Not ‘child’ marriages.

Before someone starts giving examples of young marriages from different eras of Islamic history, let us also take a moment to ponder how drastically different were the ethos of those societies. Those were eras of precocious children who were capable of handling the affairs of not only their households, but of the entire state and empire that they were entrusted with.

Early marriage is defined as marriage before the age of 18. It is associated with increased fertility and population growth because early marriage lengthens the time girls and women spend in childbearing years and shortens the time span between generations. The practice tends to persist in areas that are remote and rural, underdeveloped, and poor.

Child brides are at a distinct disadvantage and the impact of early marriage on their lives is far-reaching. They usually enter marriage with low levels of education or no education whatsoever and limited knowledge and skills that are needed to negotiate adult marital roles.

Girls married at early ages tend to have larger age differences with their husbands than those married later, and it is more likely that their marriages were arranged, unwanted, and unexpected. A married girl is frequently expected to bear a child soon after marriage, representing a significant health risk to both the girl and her baby.

The World Health Organization’s recent guidelines on preventing early pregnancy lists the prevention of child marriage as one of six primary goals. Studies in some settings in sub-Saharan Africa suggest that girls who marry early have increased risk of HIV infection, even compared with their unmarried sexually active peers, with 50% higher rates of infection among married adolescents compared with unmarried, sexually active girls.

Married girls’ high infection rates are related to more frequent intercourse, limited condom use, and husbands who are significantly older, more experienced, and more likely to be HIV-positive compared with boyfriends of unmarried girls.

Evidence is also emerging that girls married early are more likely to be victims of violence at the hands of their husbands than women who marry later. In her article in this issue of Journal of Adolescent Health, Gage adds another dimension to the multiple adverse consequences that accrue to girls from early and unwanted marriages.

Not only Muslim history, but European history also holds examples of rulers like Julius Caesar who was extremely young (by today’s standards) to take up the reins of the entire Roman Empire. But as man has evolved, so have his standards, his ethics and his values.

These marriages represent a culture of societal pressure and control that attempts to pre-empt and counter any decision-making process on part of the bride and the groom. As even in the 21st century, ‘love’ marriages remain taboo for conservative societies, parents in such situations feel that they will encounter less resistance if they marry off their children while they are immature and impressionable.

Is it the only way to do so? No one denies the importance of raising kids according to certain moral standards. But is it wise to hand them such humongous responsibilities? Childhood being the most endearing and precious time of a person’s life, being deprived of it by marrying them and burdening them with obligations is sheer cruelty.

What makes it even crueller is the fact that at this stage, due to their innocence and naivete, they do not realise what a marriage could bring at this time. Consummating their marriage and having their own children, while they are still pre-teens, becomes an ethical nightmare.

How can they be wise parents if they themselves are immature and inexperienced in life, not to mention their education is disrupted? Barbie dolls are replaced with crying infants being nursed by little girls who are physically fragile and mentally juvenile. But it would be unfair to say that only girls feel the brunt of this antiquated and brutal practice. Boys are affected adversely too. They become mentally stressed out from the responsibilities thrust upon them and the premature flair for physical intimacy drives them towards unhealthy and illicit activities.

A major Pakistani newspaper published an article on 20th August 2017, titled, “No Country for Girls”, stating that the majority of the babies recovered from garbage dumps are girls. The article pleads for all of us to end this obsession to have sons and to put an end to the savage practice of discriminating against girls.

The Pakistani newspaper has a point. We South Asians, be it Indian, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi, have still not rooted out the discrimination against the girl child. We do not want our children to be girls. We get them married off early so they can give birth to a boy child.

Unless we change this abominable practice, which permeates and is perpetrated by every single segment of the society, irrespective of social, economic and educational background, we will never be able to gain respect in the world.

Not only are South Asians practicing early marriages when they are in the continent, they persist in social control even when they move to the western countries. Denmark passed a law, the minimum-age-of-24-years law for family reunification, to protect girls born in immigrant families from getting forced into marriages. By the time they are 24, they have an education and can probably take a job and can be more robust in breaking the age-old tradition of getting married early.

If not 24, the world can do much more to avoid child marriages occurring for girls below 18 years of age. The verdict of the Supreme Court should be backed by all of us who want a better society for all. Including girls.

India´s Supreme Court finally struck down a law which indirectly allowed a man to have sex with his wife, if she was between 15 and 18. This is illegal now. Legally marrying a child and having sex with an underage wife is rape, concluded the Court. Indian law already prohibits an adult from having sex with underage children, but a legal marriage between a 50-year-old man and a 15-year-old girl, was principally still acceptable before the verdict of the Supreme Court. Not anymore.

Let us look at the dismal international statistics. 39,000 girls under the age of 18 are victims of child-marriages every day. They are either forced by social and economic circumstances or outdated traditions depriving them of their childhood. Child-marriage should be considered a gross violation of human rights, and appropriate international measures should be adopted by all countries, not just India.

However, India still has the largest number of child brides in the world, so effective approaches need to be dramatically scaled up, and taken to some of the more rural parts of the country where there has been little progress.

This is where we stand today: in developing countries, 1 in every 3 girls is married before the age of 18. And 1 in nine girls is married before turning 15.

Try looking at it this way: The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that if current trends continue, worldwide, 142 million girls will be married by 2020. Another prediction from a global partnership called “Girls Not Brides” suggests, that if there is no reduction in child marriages, the global number of child brides will reach 1.2 billion by 2050.

Why is this such a critical issue? Child marriage undermines global effort to reduce poverty and boost shared prosperity, as it traps vulnerable individuals in a cycle of poverty. Child marriage deprives girls of educational opportunities. Often times, when girls are married at a young age, they are more likely to drop out of school and are at a higher risk of death due to early childbirth. According to the World Health Organization, complications during pregnancy and childbirth are the second cause of death for 15-19-year-old girls globally.

The magnitude of the problem outweighs the policy attention we pay to it. It is estimated that more than 100 million girls will be married as children over the next decade, if present patterns remain unchanged. A review of physiological and cognitive readiness at different stages of adolescence concluded that early adolescence (younger than age 15) is generally “too early” from any point of view, for transitions such as sexual initiation and marriage.

Nevertheless, marriage to very young adolescent girls—those younger than the age of 15—is still far too common. Worldwide, roughly 14 million girls younger than 15 will marry in the next decade. An analysis by the Population Council identified 76 regions or provinces in 22 countries where at least one in five girls marry before age 15.

We need much more research to understand the specific factors that have led to the global drop in numbers of child marriages, and the reasons behind regional and local differences. What we can already glean is that many countries that have seen a decline – including India and Ethiopia – have put resources into tackling it. For instance, national and state governments in India, along with civil society organisations, have conducted multiple interventions to keep girls in school and out of marriage, and to address some of the social norms that devalue girls and women.

Tackling child marriage will require political will, financial and other resources, the provision of appropriate health, education and other services and a deep understanding of the specific drivers of child marriage in different communities. Working hand-in-hand with local civil society, communities and girls themselves is key. By redoubling our efforts, and working in partnership across sectors and continents, we can create a world free of child marriage where girls and boys are able to shape their own futures.

The U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF, estimates more than 650 million women alive today were married before the age of 18. In 2016, another 5.6 million girls under the age of 18 become child brides.

At its core, child marriage is a violation of child protection and human rights. Many factors can lead to child marriage or a forced marriage — from financial or food insecurity to cultural or social norms. Whatever the cause, child marriage compromises a child’s development and severely limits her or his opportunities in life.

A global effort has prevented about 25 million child marriages over the past 10 years. However, much more will have to be done to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal of eliminating child marriage by 2030.

Poverty and child marriage

Every day, due to high levels of poverty, thousands of Bangladeshis struggle to obtain basic necessities such as food, water and shelter. This can lead families to take extreme steps to alleviate poverty, such as marrying off their young daughters to reduce the supposed burden on resources.

Poverty is one of many reasons’ child marriage is widespread in Bangladesh – ingrained traditions going back years are also a cause.

A downward trend

Today, human rights are becoming more important across the world. Many countries – including Bangladesh – are trying to bring about positive change.

There is some hope in that there has been a significant decrease in child marriage from the year 2000, when 65% of girls were married while being below the legal age of 18. Today, it’s around 52% – which is still a shockingly high number, but a step in the right direction for Bangladesh’s girls.

There is also hope in the fact that the Bangladeshi government has committed (at the 2014 Girl Summit) to putting a complete end to child marriage by 2041. However, with a law allowing child marriage in “special circumstances”, one must ask how the authorities think this will help them achieve the goal of 0% child marriage?

Timeline for ending child marriage

2008 to 2009 — Approximately 25 percent of women are married as children.

2012 — The first International Day of the Girl Child on October 11 focuses on preventing child marriage.

2013 — The U.N. Human Rights Council puts child marriage on its agenda for action. The U.N. General Assembly declares child marriage to be a barrier to development.

2015 — The United Nations Population Fund estimates that 1 in 3 girls marry by age 18 and 1 in 9 marry by age 15. One target of the Sustainable Development Goals commits all countries to act to end child marriage.

2018 — The number of women who marry as children is down to 1 in 5. Delaware and New Jersey become the first U.S. states to outlaw child marriage without exceptions.

2030 — 2030 is the Sustainable Development Goals’ target date for all countries to end child marriage. If child marriage had continued at the 2015 rate, by 2030, there will be 960 million women alive who married as children.

Top countries for child marriage

Mozambique has a very high rate of child marriage, ranking ninth in the world.

According to the 2017 UNICEF report, State of the World’s Children, the countries with the highest rates of child marriage before age 18 (counted among women now 20 to 24) are:

  1. Niger* — 76 percent
  2. Central African Republic* — 68 percent
  3. Chad* — 67 percent
  4. Bangladesh* — 59 percent
  5. Mali* — 52 percent
  6. South Sudan* — 52 percent
  7. Burkina Faso — 52 percent
  8. Guinea — 51 percent
  9. Mozambique* — 48 percent
  10. India* — 47 percent

Of the 25 countries with the highest rates of child marriage, almost all are affected by conflict, fragility, or natural disasters.

*Countries where World Vision works to help build communities that promote and provide for women’s and girls’ development along with men and boys.

Reportedly, the Senate Standing Committee for Human Rights on 30TH January 2019 approved the Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Bill 2018.

The Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Bill, 2018, looks to increase the minimum age by which women can marry to 18. Currently, the legal age for marriage for women in the country is 16 years, while that for men is 18 years.

The upper house of the Parliament had sent the bill tabled by Senator Sherry Rehman to the concerned committee for further debate and recommendations.

Senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar chaired the standing committee session to discuss the bill.

During the session, Minister for Human Rights Dr Shireen Mazari said the proposed bill would be presented in the parliament for debate next month.

Senator Sherry Rehman, who is also the Leader of Opposition in the upper house, said that the proposed legislation is aimed at preventing underage marriages, the legislation was also passed in Sindh Assembly earlier, she said.

Senator Rehman called for explanation of the word ‘child’. “Childhood marriages are the cause of 21 percent deaths in children, Sherry Rehman said. Pakistan is second from top in the countries where child marriages are rampant,” she said.

“This bill has been presented in order to stop child marriage. A similar legislation was already adopted by the Sindh Assembly. This bill, however, will also apply to Islamabad,” Senator Sherry Rehman said. She demanded ban on marriages under the age of 18 years.

Federal Minister for Human Rights Dr. Shireen Mazari said, “We have no objection over the bill.”

Chairman of the committee Senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar said, “the committee approves the bill”.

The bill says that a minor would be a person under the age of 18, the legislation shall extend to the Islamabad Capital Territory and come into force at once.

The Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Bill despite insistence by some religious political parties’ MPs to set marriage age at 12 to 13 years, was moved in the Senate and referred to concerned committee of the House.

A recent synthesis report by the “Girl Center” at the Population Council shows that there is no universal ‘silver bullet’ solution to ending child marriage, and that we need holistic approaches that bring together different types of interventions. In particular, the report highlights that including a focus on empowering girls is a key part of an effective response.

Islam teaches us certain guidelines for conducting our affairs, but it also invites us towards Ijma and Qiyas, which are tools of intellectual cognition and derivations. Thus, there is a need for proper research regarding these matters in light of religion and circumstances to guide the normal public as to when and how marriages be conducted in an Islamic society.

By our orthodox beliefs, we have made our lives more difficult by brandishing the so-called iron fist of Islam at anyone who dares to question our practices. Child marriage is a misinterpreted and cruel practice that reeks of ignorance. It must be eradicated because every child has the right towards a robust childhood before he or she becomes burdened with the affairs of adulthood. Let your children, be children first and then parents, when the right time comes.

Note: This article has originally been written by Urooj Fatima

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