We call them “child brides,” girls who get married before they reach the age of 18, and whose futures are compromised by this premature introduction into the adult world of marriage, motherhood, sex, and household responsibilities.
While the majority of child marriages in the world take place in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, the phenomenon is not unknown in this country. Statistics compiled by the National Statistical Coordination Board show that for the year 2011, a total of 58,320 girls (12.2 percent) below 20 years of age got married. In contrast, only 12,882 (2.7 percent) teenage boys became grooms, which bears out the observation that many child brides are married off to much older men. (If you want to play around with statistics, note that only 192 women age 70-74 got married in 2011, compared to 805 men of the same age range.)
Many of these marriages, where one or both partners were below 18 years, took place in poor, rural areas, where norms tolerating, if not encouraging, the practice are common. These include Muslim communities where men under Sharia law are allowed up to four wives, and indigenous cultural communities where multiple families are common and civil registration of marriages and births seldom takes place.
Does this explain the observation that, despite the overall decline in marriages around the country, marriages in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao increased by 79.7 percent in 2011 compared with the previous year?
Whatever, child marriage has been called one of the most common forms of violations of human rights in the world, “posing great risks to the girls involved,” according to the “Women Under Siege” project. These risks go beyond the loss of childhood or adolescent freedom, and can extend to threats to health, violation of the right to education, and even compromise the brides’ future and that of their children.
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Girls who become mothers “frequently before their bodies are completely ready,” wrote journalist Max Fisher in an article in The Washington Post, face serious threats to their health and survival. “In developing countries, where almost all child marriages take place,” writes Fisher, “complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the No. 1 cause of death for girls age 15 to 19. That means that pregnancy and childbirth kill more girls in the developing world than war, AIDS, tuberculosis or any other cause.”
The reason early motherhood is so deadly for girls is simply that “their bodies are not ready.” Indeed, in developing countries, a girl or woman is twice as likely to die in childbirth if she’s age 15 to 19 than she is if she’s in her 20s. Girls are five times as likely to die.
In addition, marriages between a girl and a much older man are “typically far from equal.” “Keep in mind that husbands to child brides are typically adults and may have often paid her parents for the privilege; many activists consider child marriages to be a form of human trafficking… the buying and selling of human beings,” writes Fisher.
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In this situation of inequality, as Fisher observes, “the conditions of child marriage make marital rape more likely.” Indeed, Unicef calls child marriage “the most prevalent form of sexual abuse and exploitation of girls.”
Fisher adds: “Some activists argue that, in cases where the bride is clearly a young child, sex in such marriages should not be considered consensual. Separately, the fact that the husband may have paid for his bride can set up a dynamic that’s more transactional than romantic. Comprehensive statistics on marital rape are not available and, in any case, what constitutes marital rape can be tough to define in places where a girl grows up learning that she’s expected to do her ‘marital duty.’ Still, Human Rights Watch cites a number of anecdotal cases that clearly qualify as rapes, often justified as function of the girls’ marriage.”
Powerless and completely under their older husbands’ thumbs, young wives have little say on their future. A natural and common consequence is that after marriage, a girl is forced to leave school, “often left totally reliant on their husbands.” Observes Fisher: “This leaves (the girls) with little future except as a housewife and mother, a life they never have the opportunity to choose willingly as an adult. Having dropped out of school so young also makes it that much tougher for them, because they have little means to provide for themselves, to leave their marriage if the husband is abusive.”
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One in seven girls in the developing world is married before turning 15, Fisher notes, and, he says, “that population is expected to grow rapidly, far outpacing the rest of the world.”
“Girls are the world’s forgotten population,” Fisher quotes Lauren Wolfe, of the Women Under Siege project. Indeed, voiceless and powerless even before they got married or had children, girls are often overlooked, if not ignored. In the eyes of many adults, maybe even including their parents, marriage could even be their “salvation,” even if it means putting them under the domination of a man who paid for her company, if not her body. And even if her consent was neither sought nor given.
It is in the face of this rising number of child brides and underage marriages, and the horrible consequences the phenomenon bears on the girls’ health and their future as well as that of their children, that we might do well (or at least, the Supreme Court justices could) to consider the provisions of the Reproductive Health Law, especially those on the provision of age-appropriate sexuality education, and access to RH services to all, regardless of age or civil status.
It’s time we gave our girls voice and power.