Dear Friends for Life: Wow! Can you imagine girl-child(ren) forced into marriage, the psychological fear, the unspeakable suffering, the small bodies not fully developed yet to give birth and the limited mental capacity to comprehend what is happening. This my friends is the latest violent attack against small girls and the world stands silent.
South Asia is home to the highest number of child brides. Child marriage may be defined as any union where one or both children are under 18 years of age. Each year, 15 million girls are married before the age of 18. That is 28 girls every minute. 1 Every 2 seconds.
Facts show that the consequences of child marriage are cruel. In South Asia the young girls face health risks – including death – due to early pregnancy. They are forced to quit school (elementary, junior and high). They sink deeper into poverty and become victims of domestic and sexual abuse. If these marriages continue to increase, by 2050 there will be 1.2 billion women alive who married as children.
Briefly, let’s analyse Nepal, one South Asian country with a population of 26.4 million people. A closer look presents some shocking facts – forced child labor, lack of education, domestic violence, and health risks.
Nepal has the third highest rate of child marriages in Asia. 37% of girls marry before they are 18 and 10% before 15 despite the fact that the legal age of marriage is 20. Why do so many girls marry at such an early age?
Society is structured in such a way that women are second class citizens. They are viewed as unproductive economically and married off quickly by the family. Child labor is common in Nepal with about 40% of children working. Girls are more likely to work than boys and most of those doing hazardous work are girls. Girls who work often are forced to leave school and once they leave school they get married.
Among these social pressures, a new trend is appearing. A number of these girls are choosing to get married on their own, some as young as 11 or 12. These are called love marriages. They are looking for a way out of poverty and abuse at home, hard labor or an arranged marriage. However, whether forced or love, the damage to the girls is often the same.
The basic fact remains that these girls are still children and their bodies and minds are in early stages of development. These girl-child(ren) are forced to endure adult situations that no child should face. Among the most damaging is found in early pregnancy, which carries serious health risks – including death – for both girls and their babies, not to mention sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
Early child marriage is a human rights violation and is rampant in South Asia. To end child marriage requires action at many levels. Existing laws against child marriage should be enforced. Governments, communities and social organisations must work together to ensure girls have access to education, health information and services, and life-skills training. Education should not be a distant dream for these small girls. Without education, their futures are stolen from them.
As a result, these measures will lead to healthier families, higher levels of gender equality and, in turn, stronger societies and more vibrant economies. No society can afford the lost opportunity, waste of talent, or personal exploitation that child marriage causes.
The Catholic Church should place more focus on the evils of child marriages. For all practical purposes, they are a form of slavery and the young girls effectively loose their freedom. Pope Francis may be in position to actually do something. As one of the most influential voices in the world, he could make a major contribution to the eradication of child marriage. Let’s pray he does.
Jerry Novotny, OMI