Child Marriages Throughout History
Child marriage refers to the formal or informal union or marriage entered by an individual below the age of 18 years. This act has been the subject of thousands of debates and controversies worldwide where those favoring child marriages have fought both verbally and violently against those not favoring this act. Both young boys and girls have been subjected to child marriages over the years. However, the frequency of child marriages involving girls below 18 has always been more than those involving boys. Child marriages involving only one marriage partner below the age of 18, usually the female, are also quite common. Throughout history till the 20th century, child marriages were the norm in most parts of the world. With the average life expectancy during such times being only 40 to 45 years of age, child marriages were the faster way to reproduce. Girls were usually married off as soon as they reached puberty or sometimes even prior to that. In the 20th century, however, as countries started developing, women started receiving education, voting and other rights and entered the workforce, their economic conditions improved, and there were massive improvements in average life expectancy due to advanced medical practices, the practice of child marriages began to be questioned. Soon, this practice nearly disappeared in the developed economies of the world. In many other countries of the world, however, child marriages continue to be practiced in spite of global protests and resistance against this act.
Reasons to Wed Young
Over the years, a large number of reasons have been suggested as triggers behind the practice of child marriage. Economic problems have been one of the primary factors that have forced parents to marry off their young girls. The system of dowry prevailing in many countries where parents of girls have to bestow hefty sums of money or expensive goods and ornaments to the in-laws’ families of their daughters have led to the consideration of the girl child as a burden in such households. However, the high demand of young girls in the marriage market have helped parents marry off their girl child to an older man, often receiving money in return, allowing them to overcome the burdens of dowry and even economically benefiting from the process. Several cases of foreign raids and invasions where the invaders have raped and carried away unmarried girls as booty, have also triggered the society to protect their girls by marrying them off at an earlier age. For example, in India, about 1,000 years back, a series of Muslim invasions resulted in unmarried girls being raped and carried away by the Muslim invaders. This forced the society to adopt the practice of child marriage to protect its girls. In some societies, religious and social stigma exists regarding the marriageable age of girls which forces the parents to allow their girl child to be married young to overcome social stigma. Children have also been married off to establish political and financial relations between families. Laws of some countries, especially the religious dictates also favors child marriage which has often predominated over the civil laws against child marriage.
Child marriage is associated with scientifically established adverse effects to the young female child’s health. Pregnant girls below the age of 15 have a 5 to 7 times higher chance of dying during childbirth as compared to pregnant women in their twenties. Child mothers are also more susceptible to develop obstetric fistula, cervical cancer, sexually transmitted diseases and other health problems. Infant mortality rates are also 60% higher in case of children born of mothers who are below the age of 18 years. Child marriage usually deprives the female child of educational rights, leading to the loss of financial independence of the child in her future. Child brides are also susceptible to domestic violence, marital rapes and sexual abuse as they are not mature enough to protest and not independent enough to escape adverse situations in their conjugal life.
Shifts in Societal Acceptance
Over the last few decades, child marriage has been made illegal in many countries across the world. United Nations have recognized this practice as an act violating basic human rights. Data also suggests that many countries supporting child marriage have suffered from serious economic losses due to the absence of an educated female workforce in the country. In most of the developed countries of the world today, child marriage is no longer a dangerous nightmare threatening the well-being of the child. With women enjoying equal rights as men in these countries, the need to seek dependence under the umbrella of a male figure is no longer needed. Educated women seeking bright careers are also no longer a “burden” to their parents in these countries and enjoy their right to choose to marry or not after attaining adulthood. Awareness is also spreading to the developing world where female education is doing the job of empowering women to fight for their rights and to protest against child marriage.
Where Are Child Marriages Still Common Today?
Though the incidence of child marriage has decreased in most parts of today’s world, it is still highly prevalent in some developing nations like many countries of Africa, South, West and Southeast Asia, South America, and Oceania. As per a 2015 UNICEF report, countries with the highest rates of child marriage before 18 years of age included Niger (76%), the Central African Republic (68%), and Chad (68%) at the top three positions. Other countries with high rates of child marriage include Bangladesh (65%), Mali (55%), Guinea (52%), South Sudan (52%), Burkina Faso (52%), Malawi (50%), and Mozambique (48%). India continues to have exceptionally high rates of child marriage as well, reaching in excess of 50% in many rural parts of the country.