A report from UNICEF was released today, entitled "Ending Child Marriage: Progress and Prospects," revealing that 700 million marriages worldwide involved girls under the age of 18, and of those, about 250 million of the girls were under 15. (Comparably, about 2% of boys were married under the age of 15, meaning that many these girls are married to considerably older men.)
One-third of the married girls are from India, roughly half are from South Asia, and the bulk of the rest are in Africa. In proportion to their own populations, the ten most culpable countries are:
- Niger (77%)
- Bengladesh (74%)
- Chad (69%)
- Mali (61%)
- CAR (60%)
- India (58%)
- Guinea (58%)
- Ethiopia (58%)
- Burkhina Faso (52%)
- Nepal (52%)
Contributing factors include culture, poverty, dowry laws, and lack of access to education or economic independence. The report studiously avoids explaining what the foundations of these "cultures" might be, since there's no reference to religious traditions, which are usually powerful indicators.
The report summarises:
Girls who marry are not only denied their childhood. They are often socially isolated -- cut off from family and friends and other sources of support -- with limited opportunities for education and employment. Households typically make decisions about girls' school and marriage jointly, not sequentially, and education tends to lose out. Accordingly, lower levels of education are found among women who married in childrhood. In Malawi, for instance, nearly two thirds of women with no formal education were child brides compared to 5 per cent of women who attended secondary school or higher levels of education.
Child brides are often unable to effectively negotiate safer sex, leaving themselves vulnerable to sexually transimitted infections , including HIV, along with early pregnancy. The pressure to become pregnant once married can be intense, and child brides typically end up having many children to care for while still young. In Nepal, for example, over one third of women aged 20 to 24 who married before their 15th birthday had three or more children compared to 1 per cent of women who married as adults. Child brides are also less likely to receive proper medical care while pregnant, In countries including Bengladesh, Ethiopia, Nepal, and Niger, women who married as adults were at least twice as likely to have delivered their most recent paby in a health facility compared to women who married before age 15. This, along with the fact that girls are not physically mature enough to give birth, places both mothers and their babies at risk.
Since the child brides who survive pregnancy have abundant children, and their daughters themselves are married young, the number of overall child brides is increasing rapidly (even when small inroads are made to discourage the parents). The Catholic response is not to discourage marriage or the child-bearing inherent to that vocation, but to expand edcuational opportunities for girls, delay marriage until it is safer, and to introduce and support the idea that marriage is a partnership that flourishes when mutual respect is possible.