Child Marriage: When does a cultural practice become a global health issue?


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In September 2013, the global community was shocked when allegations came forth that an eight-year-old child bride named Rawan had died from internal injuries suffered on her wedding night. Rawan was wedded to a man in his 40s from the northeastern province of Hajja in Yemen. Following these accusations, the Human Rights Watch demanded an investigation. While the allegations were unconfirmed, the investigation itself prompted the global community to question the level of appropriate intervention in child marriage.

Child marriage is defined as a formal marriage or informal union of a child under the age of 18 and is a widespread and ongoing practice in Yemen as well as many other areas of the world. Statistics from the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) report that one third of the world’s girls are married before the age of 18 and 1 in 9 are married before the age of 15. In 2010 the ICRW released a statement that “If present trends continue, 142 million girls will be married before their 18th birthday over the next decade. That’s an average of 14.2 million girls each year.”

There are three prominent underlying factors in the issue of child marriage. First is the institution of child marriage. Second is the connection between child marriage and sexual assault. Third, is the issue of women’s rights in regards to the protection of girls’ mental and physical health. Although these factors overlap, they are three separate issues.

Child marriage is both a cultural and economic institution. In Yemen, poverty is one of the main reasons families marry off their young daughters. The tradition is maintained by its assurance of girls’ financial futures and its reinforcement of community relations. In addition to this, child marriage alleviates the financial burden daughters may place on their families. Even though the cultural roots of child marriage are evident, the institution of child marriage continues to be highly criticized by western culture as western culture promotes equality between the sexes. However, this criticism of marriage culture is two sided, as eastern culture criticizes western marriage ideals as well. Yemenese legislator Sheik Mohammed al-Hazmi condemns the western opposition to child marriage in his statement, “The West wants to teach us how to marry, conceive and divorce. This is cultural colonization that we reject.” This cultural disconnect causes problems in regard to views on foreign marriage law. However, while both cultural ideals are valid, neither justifies a prominent issue with child marriage—sexual assault.

“The consequences of these health issues extend much farther past those of the individual. As women are and integral part of society, their health issues… are the problems of an entire society”

Sexual assault is the second angle from which child marriage needs to be analyzed as it is statistically linked to child marriage. Sexual assault is defined as the conduct of a sexual or indecent nature toward another person that is accompanied by actual or threatened physical force that induces fear, shame, or mental suffering. Age is not incorporated into this definition of sexual assault, but it is a fundamental factor in the discussion of child marriage.

The variation in circumstance and age of sexual maturity from woman to woman, or child to child, makes creating protective legislation a great challenge. Furthermore, enforcing rules and boundaries on a cultural practice is problematic due to its deep roots within society. Although there are challenges, legislation is indispensable in combating this issue. In addition, it is beneficial to both a government and its people to create legislation that enhances and protects women’s rights.

Statistically, women who grow up in child marriages suffer related educational, social, and personal disadvantages. Studies show that child marriage is linked to low level of schooling and little possibility for girls to pursue educational opportunities, putting them at a disadvantage to enter the paid labor force or to earn an independent income. This creates a major disadvantage for countries as it puts half of their potential labor force at risk of being unskilled and dependent.

Additionally, lack of knowledge of intercourse is a byproduct of the low levels of education resulting from child marriage. Statistics from the International Women’s Health Coalition position child marriage as one of the leading causes of pregnancies before age 15. Physical immaturity of girls 15 and younger leads to high-risk pregnancies and further complications during childbirth. Many of these pregnancies lead to prolonged and obstructed labor with the potential of hemorrhaging, severe infections, and maternal death. The rate of eclampsia, a life-threatening complication of pregnancy, characterized by the appearance of tonic–clonic seizures is much higher and mothers who survive are at increased risk for obstetric fistula, a debilitating condition that causes chronic incontinence.

The consequences of these health issues extend much further past those of the individual. As women are an integral part of society, their health issues and lack of education are the problems of an entire society. Investing in women’s health is key to a country’s development. After doing so, they are able to become healthier, more productive members of society, which positively affects their families, communities, and ultimately their nation. Creating legislation to end or to more tightly regulate child marriage is pivotal to this process. Governments of countries harboring the institution of child marriage such as Yemen need to step up, or allow the global community to find a culturally sensitive way of alleviate the suffering of the thousands of girls and women who face the consequences each day.

Lauren Farmer is an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley majoring in biology and very interested in public health, specifically women’s health. This article is reprinted with permission from The Public Health Advocate, the official publication of the Cal Undergraduate Public Health Coalition. To read more from this group, visit the Public Health Advocate blog. (photo by Brett Lewis)


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