Southeast Asia’s big dilemma: what to do about child marriage?

Tuesday, 27 August 2013 05:00 GMT

One in every three girls in the developing world is married by the age of 18.

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“I was on my way home from school. Together with three men, this boy caught me and tied me up. They carried me to the boy’s house and locked me in a small room for three days. His parents brought alcohol and money to my brother’s house. My brother accepted the price and I became the boy’s wife.”

This is the story of 12-year-old May, a member of the Hmong ethnic group from northern Vietnam’s mountainous Ha Giang province. The colourful local culture and dramatic landscapes of the area attract tourists by the busload, but behind this vista of beauty is the little known custom of hai pu (literally “pull wife”) or bride kidnapping. May’s new husband, Pao, the boy who kidnapped her, is also 12 years old and works across the border in China as a labourer.

Left on the shelf

May is one of 10 million girls around the world each year who are married before they turn 18. One in every three girls in the developing world is married by the age of 18; one in seven by the age of 15. 

Vietnamese law requires men to be at least 20 years old and women to be 18 before marrying. Both spouses must also give free consent. But child marriage persists in rural areas like Ha Giang.

May dearly misses her hour-long walk to school. It was on that same path, slick with mud during the rainy season, that May was kidnapped.

“If I don’t get married at this age, I can go to school and nurture my dream to be a teacher. However, if I become a teacher, no men in the village will want to marry me. They don’t like highly-educated women. They prefer the young ones who can work hard in the field,” she says.

Girls in Ha Giang are considered “left on the shelf” if they are not married by age 18, says Tanushree Soni, Plan International’s gender specialist in Asia. 

“Gender is society’s expectation of the roles of men and women, boys and girls. If a society assigns high value and expectations to nurturing roles for women, then girls will be socialised and prepared to perform them.” 

These nurturing roles include cooking, cleaning, planting crops and starting a family. Child marriage disproportionately affects the educational opportunities and achievements of married girls, adds Soni.

“Child marriage is closely associated with lower education and economic status of girls. Child brides are less able than older or unmarried girls to access schooling and income-generating opportunities.”

Research by Plan International found that 33 per cent of married boys in Ha Giang have never enrolled in school, compared with 67 per cent of married girls, while only 17 per cent of married girls complete their secondary education compared with 48 per cent of married boys.

“I’m not happy, but because I am a girl, I cannot do anything to change this,” adds May.

A burden to bear

Child marriage is a common, if underreported, issue in Southeast Asia, where between 10-24 per cent of women aged 20-24 years old are married by the time they are 18. In Vietnam, 12 per cent of women aged 20-24 are married before they are 18. In Cambodia, it’s 23 per cent. In Laos, where the legal age to marry is 15, figures can be hard to come by but, according to 2005 data, the United Nations reports that 20 per cent of women aged 15-19 were married, divorced or widowed, compared to 6 per cent of men.

“I was 15 years old when I got married,” says Nuan, 18, who lives in the northern province of Bokeo, Laos. Bordering Thailand and Burma, it’s the smallest and least populous province in the country. It’s also one of the most diverse, home to 34 ethnic groups living in an area defined by the Mekong River, which brings both trade and tourists. 

After her father passed away, Nuan dropped out of school. Her family, who were already living in poverty, struggled to make ends meet, leaving Nuan feeling pressured to find a husband and begin taking care of her family.

In some parts of Bokeo, when a girl turns 14, she’s seen as mature and ready for marriage. Many parents encourage their daughters to marry early as a way to avoid the stigma associated with out-of-wedlock pregnancies. But once a girl is married, she usually drops out of school.

Xieng, 20, is Nuan’s husband. The two were married when he was 17. They grew up together in the same community and knew each other at school. Now they have a 7-month old son, Somdeth, who is cared for by his grandparents while Nuan and Xieng work as farmers. Nuan says she would like to have a second child, a daughter, soon.

Girls living in poverty in rural areas are far more likely to be married than girls living in urban areas. Although child marriage affects girls and boys, the impact on girls is more pronounced and can be life-threatening. Girls who marry early usually have their first child at a younger age than those who marry later, says Plan International’s Soni.

“This exposes girls to higher sexual and reproductive health risks. Girls are pressured to prove their fertility soon after marrying and they have little access to information on reproductive health, or the ability to influence decision-making on family planning.”

Girls aged 15-19 years old are twice as likely as older women to die from childbirth and pregnancy-related complications, the leading causes of death for girls in this age group in developing countries. 

A mother too soon

Despite a general consensus around the world on the definition of “child” -- anyone under the age of 18 -- inconsistencies can leave girls vulnerable.
In Timor-Leste, girls can legally be married at 15, boys at 18. 

“I left school because I was four months pregnant,” says Isabel, a 17-year-old girl who lives in the suburbs of Dili, capital of Timor-Leste. Her daughter, Klarisa, is now seven months old and her husband, Joao, is 20 and works as a plumber. The couple married soon after Isabel fell pregnant.

Almost 19 per cent of girls in Timor-Leste are married by the time they are 19. The fertility rate is one of the highest in the region with women having, on average, six children. Marriage, and child marriage in particular, is often a consequence of pregnancy for girls in Timor-Leste.

Isabel dropped out of high school in Grade 10 because she “felt embarrassed” and because it’s a violation of school rules to be pregnant and enrolled as a student.

Girls and boys in Timor-Leste have limited access to family planning services, which are only available to married couples, and little knowledge of sexual education.

“Young people don’t know how to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancy,” says Isabel.

Child marriage is a plague in Southeast Asia, deeply rooted in poverty, gender inequality and traditional practices. May, Nuan and Isabel have to live with the consequences, forced to drop out of school and risk their lives. 

“I still want to enjoy my life and study like my other friends,” says Isabel, “but I can’t because I am a mother and have to stay at home to look after my baby.”

* Some names in this story have been changed to protect identities.