Why Punish Her? Issue of Child Marriages

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Pavneet Singh Kochhar's picture

“No violence against children is justifiable, and all violence against children is preventable” - United Nations Report on Violence against Children [1].

Few months back, an 8 year old Yemeni girl, who was married to a 40-year old man died on the wedding night. This news sent shockwaves around the world. The girl died due to internal bleeding caused by sexual intercourse which did severe damage to her private parts. Human right activists were enraged and criticized such a barbaric act. Yemen’s human right minister condemned the act in strongest terms and said “enough is enough” [2]. The minister also opined that this incident gives an opportunity to bring this practice to an end.

Facts, Figures & Issues:

Yemen is among the 48 least developed countries (LDC) in the world [3]. In Yemen, nearly 80% of girls out of school are unlikely ever to enrol, compared with 36% of boys [4]. The literacy rate of female youth aged 15-24 is 76%, which is far below the corresponding value of males i.e., 96%. [5]. About 12% of the girls are married by the age of 15 and 15% of the women have daughters whose genital has been cut or mutilated [5]. Yemen features among the top 41 countries where the prevalence of child marriage is 30% or more [6]. These figures speak volumes of the deplorable conditions of children, particularly girls in Yemen. These inhuman practices continue even when Yemen comes under several legal obligations to protect children such as The Right to Full and Free Consent into Marriage, The Right to Health and Access to Health Information, The Right to Education, The Right to be Free from Physical, Mental, and Sexual Violence [7].

One of the biggest issues behind child marriage is the gender inequality that is prevalent in many countries. Most of these countries plagued by this issue are poverty ridden and have patriarchal societies, which favour the masculine gender and grant certain privileges only to males. This biasing denies equal rights in households and communities.  To add to their woes, poverty forces families to withdraw their children from schools. These children are left with no other option but to take employment or help parents with household chores, when they are not only physically immature but also not prepared emotionally and psychologically. The worst affected of this phenomenon are girls as they are viewed by family as an encumbrance or a commodity, which can be utilised to settle debts or developing relationships with powerful people in the community such as village head. These practices are particularly common in rural areas. This attitude subjects them to pressure from parents as well as community, who feel that it is useless to educate girls as their purpose is to serve their husband and bear children.

Another common reason for early marriage is dowry pressure. In the rural areas, it is a common norm that families will pay fewer dowries if the girls are married in their early teens. The fear of giving more dowries compels families to marry of their daughters as they are already struggling to make their ends meet. Not only this, the girl’s family can get financial support from the husband which provides additional motivation for the already struggling family. Furthermore, the perception that husband’s family will be able to take better care of their daughter and marriage will protect girls from sexually transmitted diseases. On the contrary, young women are more vulnerable to HIV if their husband is 10 or more years older than them [8].  

Third issue is that most of the girls who are married do not complete schooling. Even if they complete primary education, either they do not enrol or drop out without completing secondary schooling. Girls are less likely to complete secondary school education particularly in under-developed countries such as sub-Saharan African countries [9]. These girls then become victim of child marriage. Getting a decent job and having a healthy and happy life becomes impossible for these girls as they lack even basic education.

Child marriage triggers a series of human rights violation that continues throughout a girl's life. They are cut off from their families and become financially dependent on their counterparts. This situation makes them powerless and victims of atrocities committed by none other than their own husbands. The worst of them all is the sexual exploitation of girls, which leads to early and unplanned pregnancies or the so called adolescent childbearing. Moreover, pregnancy at a young age endangers the life of both mother and baby. Furthermore, girls who are married at a young age tend to have more children. Most of them are unaware of health and hygiene and thus are unable to teach their children about health practices. This chain continues which has a significant impact on the well-being of future generations. This situation is worsened because such marriages are not against the religious principles.

Solutions:

In Yemen, the biggest problem is that there is no lower age limit set for marriage. In 2009, the parliament passed a legislation to increase the minimum age to 17, which was strongly opposed by conservatives on the pretext that this amendment goes against the Islamic principles. It is high time that governments consider this issue seriously and raise the age limit. The people who conduct or support child marriages, including parents, should be prosecuted and dealt with proper legal procedures. The marriage should be conducted only after taking consent from both the partners and a girl should be given support to seek legal action against the person who forces her to marry.

Yemen joined Education for All - Fast Track Initiative (EFA FTI) in 2003, which is a partnership between developing and donor countries with an aim to support primary education through financing education programmes, improving education policies and continuously analysing the impact of these initiatives through annual reporting [10]. The government took several key steps such as girls’ education campaign, construction of new schools particularly in rural areas and removal of tuition fees [11]. Although these initiatives gave positive results, still more proactive steps need to be taken to bring girls to school. The government should increase the outreach in remote areas and provide incentives to help girls continue their schooling. It is imperative that the government must provide support to girls to exercise their rights such as a right to education, protection from all forms of violence at home or in schools and access to health facilities. Girls should be given freedom to freely express their opinions or concerns. Furthermore, the government should recruit more female teachers to ensure that girls feel safe in classrooms.

Parents play a significant role in the upbringing and grooming of their children. Parents should ensure that their sons and daughters are treated equally and there is a need to change the perception that the girls are something which needs to be sold off after some years. To overcome this malaise, it is important to educate parents as their education is highly related to the education that children will get and the age at which they will get married. Educated mothers are more likely to support their daughters to pursue studies and marry at the right age [12]. Furthermore, it is important to change the perceptions of people and educate them about gender equality particularly in rural areas which are plagued by such issues. There is a need to set up community awareness programmes to make community and religious leaders aware about the harmful practices and the irreparable damage inflicted by child marriage on girls and successive generations of her family. Social and common norms which go against the basic humanitarian laws must be changed.

United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which are to be achieved by 2015 address issues such as gender equality, empowering women, education and improvement of maternal health. The number of children out from schools throughout the world came down from 102 million to 57 million from 2000 to 2011. These figures show significant improvements particularly in developing regions. However, concerted efforts need to be put into successfully achieving these goals, particularly goals targeting universal primary education and achieving gender parity & empowering women.

As quoted by John F. Kennedy “The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened”. Every child whether boy or girl must get the opportunities to acquire education, to learn, to grow and to develop their potential. After all, everyone is entitled to basic human rights.

References: 

[1] Violence against children, retrieved from {http://www.unicef.org/violencestudy/reports.html} [2] Yemen minister on child marriage: Enough is enough, retrieved from {http://edition.cnn.com/2013/09/15/world/meast/yemen-child-bride/index.html} [3] List of Least Developed Countries, retrieved from {http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/policy/cdp/ldc/ldc_list.pdf} [4] Reaching the marginalized, retrieved from {http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0018/001866/186606E.pdf} [5] Yemen Statistics, retrieved from {http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/yemen_statistics.html#103} [6] Marrying too young, retrieved from {http://www.unfpa.org/webdav/site/global/shared/documents/publications/20...} [7] How come you allow little girls to get married? Child Marriage in Yemen, retrieved from {http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/yemen1211ForUpload_0.pdf} [8] Progress for Children: Achieving the MDGs with equity, retrieved from {http://www.unicef.org/protection/Progress_for_Children-No.9_EN_081710.pdf} [9] Progress for Children: A report card on adolescents, retrieved from {http://www.unicef.org/media/files/PFC2012_A_report_card_on_adolescents.pdf} [10] Fast Track Initiative, retrieved from {http://www.unesco.org/new/en/education/themes/leading-the-international-...} [11] Fast-Tracking Girls’ Education, retrieved from {http://www.globalpartnership.org/content/fast-tracking-girls-education} [12] Women's education and the timing of marriage and childbearing in the next generation: evidence from rural Bangladesh, Studies in Family Planning, 2007

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