Marriage is an interesting concept. Wikipedia defines it as “socially or ritually recognized union or legal contract between spouses that establishes rights and obligations between them”, which pretty much sums it up in general. Of course, the definition and implications of marriage differs between cultures, but more often than not it specifically relates to ownership of an individual (usually the wife), sexual obligations and other expectations.
A separate yet important issue in every society is the age at which one is considered intelligent enough to make their own sound decisions about their life, their body and their own well being. In Australia, for example, the law dictates that when one reaches the age of 18, that individual then is allowed to drive a car, purchase and consume alcohol and cigarettes, and get married, among other rights and privileges. Eighteen seems to be the universally agreed upon age at which one should be legally allowed to marry, though unfortunately many countries don’t follow that loose guideline.
The historical tradition of marrying and endowing young girls (not women) to men at absurdly young ages continues to this day, with the bulk of activity occurring in Western and Sub-Saharan Africa, and South East Asia. There are many factors contributing to this fact – poverty, education, health, violence and religion, to name but a few. According to the International Center for Research on Women, one third of the world’s girls are married before 18, and 1 in 9 are married before 15. An issue that contributes to this are often misguided the notions of honour and morality – a high value is placed upon a girl’s virginity, therefore if they marry earlier, they’re more likely to be a virgin and the girl’s ‘virtue’ and the man’s ‘honour’ is maintained.
The issue is much deeper than just moral differences. Girls younger than 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s, while child brides often show symptoms of sexual abuse and post-traumatic stress (depression, hopelessness). A lack of education heavily contributes to early marriage – girls who are able to attend higher education are much less likely to marry young. And as you’ll see below, more than half the girls in 9 of the top 10 countries have been married before the age of 18.
10. Malawi – 48% of girls married before 18
Malawi is the only country in this list to have less than 50% of their girls married before 18. A recent report from Human Rights Watch urged the Malawi government to “increase efforts to end widespread child and forced marriage, or risk worsening poverty, illiteracy, and preventable maternal deaths in the country.” This report documents how girls and women are prevented experiencing all areas of life to the fullest extent due to child marriage, and there currently is a proposed Marriage Law which will ensure that 18 is the youngest that girls and boys can marry, hopefully curtailing a lot of the issues that the country’s women and girls are experiencing.
9. South Sudan – 52% of girls married before 18
Just over half the girls in South Sudan are married before 18, with many of them as young as 12. The country already suffers from a high level of poverty, low levels of literacy, large gender gaps in education (read: women aren’t being educated anywhere near as often as men), and one of the world’s highest maternal mortality rates. One issue the government will need to combat is the fact that many families see the benefits of marrying off their daughters’ young – they receive cattle, money, gifts and other items in exchange. Add that to the already reduced value that their society places on women, and there is a serious problem in the social fabric that needs mending before any major changes will stick.
8. Burkina Faso – 52% of girls married before 18
Interestingly, the legal age to marry in Burkina Faso is 17, yet more than half the girls are married long before 18. The link between child marriage and population growth is unmistakable – the earlier a girl gets married, the more childbearing years she has. And this is appealing to growing nations like Burkina Faso. Also, another very prominent factor is poverty. If a family has too many children, one way to ease the financial stress is to marry off one of their younger girls. That way, the family receives a dowry while relieving themselves of the pressure of an additional mouth to feed.
7. Mali – 55% of girls married before 18
Some good news about Mali is in 2001, the Demographic and Health Survey reported that 65% of their girls married before 18, so the fact that it has dropped to 55% in 2013 is very positive. This has largely been attributed to education and awareness raising programs, which clearly had some form of impact. According to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), girls aged 15 to 19 are twice as likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth as women aged 20 to 24. As far as girls aged 10-14, the risk is five times greater. The increased risks of HIV/AIDS is most definitely correlated with commencing sexual activity earlier in life – mainly due to child brides having less education and are therefore less likely to use protection with their older partners.
6. Mozambique – 56% of girls married before 18
With well over half their girls marrying before 18, Mozambique has a lot of work to do. Their main issues revolve around violence, exploitation and abuse. The Ministry of Women and Social Action conducted a study that found that around 34% of women who responded have been beaten, while 10% have been exposed to sexual abuse. Even 8% of school children (boys and girls) have been sexually abused, and 35% experienced sexual harassment. Mozambique also has unique cultural practices where initiation rites proclaim a child ‘ready for marriage’.
5. Guinea – 63% of girls married before 18
Around 3 out of 5 girls in Guinea will be married before their 18th birthday, and this unfortunate statistic has remained around the same since 1999. Around 8.8% of girls use contraception, which is an issue with regard to spacing out their pregnancies, while of those who did request contraception from their older partner, only 30% had that need satisfied. Education is the key differentiator in Guinea – an interesting statistic is that 73% of women aged between 20 and 24 with no education (48% had primary education) were married before 18, while only 27% of women who had a secondary education were married before 18.
4. Bangladesh – 66% of girls married before 18
Maternal mortality and morbidity in Bangladesh is the major societal issue for child marriages. One great move the government made was to offer secondary school scholarships to any girl who postpones marriage. This has been running since 1994 and has been helping to reduce the child marriage rates. One issue that came up with some of the African countries is the lack of education from the parents – they don’t want the dishonor of their daughter being sexually harassed, and on top of that they don’t know how to handle a teenage girl in the midst of discovering her sexuality. And technically, it’s been illegal to marry off children under 18 in Bangladesh since 1929.
3. Central African Republic – 68% of girls married before 18
GirlsNotBrides.org did a Child-Friendliness Index in 2013 that ranked the African countries most inclined to protect children, and of course, those who aren’t so inclined – ‘A child friendly country is one that protects girls and boys from child marriage’. Central African Republic (CAR) rated in the bottom few. The study recommends Africa as a continent should adopt a national legislation with international standards and commitments are far as legal marriage age – as even though a lot of countries do have regulated marriage ages, the infrastructure isn’t in place to support it.
2. Chad – 68% of girls married before 18
Second on the list is Chad, a predominantly nomadic culture that has a disconcertingly high rate of child marriage. UNICEF launched a project a few years ago to raise awareness of the dangers of child marriage, and to give the children and families a safe haven if they do decide to say ‘no’. This has resulted in a growing number of girls and women who are refusing to marry at the behest of their families, and conversely it has also increased the number of men complaining about the ‘disobedience’ of their wives.
1. Niger – 75% of girls married before 18
Niger has long been the world leader in child marriages, with a whopping 75% of their girls married before 18. Child marriage has recently been turned into something of an international business in Niger, with families selling their daughters across the border to the north to help neighboring men get out of poverty. IRIN even reported that some local businesses are helping to put together these ‘transactions’, which is more prostitution than marriage. Companies find the girls, put their photos on the internet, men send gifts and the company arranges it all. Parents with no income sell their pretty daughters to strangers, regardless of their ages and whether the girl is still in school or not. Another issue is the minimum legal marriage age, which still sits at 15 years old in Niger. Customs tend to come before the law – Niger has a lot of Muslims, and they point to the Prophet Mohamed marrying a nine-year-old girl to validate their actions. And of course, dishonor to the family if they girl happens to get pregnant before marriage.