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Why child marriage isn’t an easy win for campaigners

Tuesday, 11 October 2016 18:10 GMT

An Ethiopian girl washes the hands of a young man in preparation for the evening meal. Photo credit: Young Lives/Antonio Fiorente

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Attempts to impose a ban on child marriage risk driving the practice underground

Alula Pankhurst is Ethiopia Country Director at Young Lives, an international study of childhood poverty run by Oxford University following the lives of 12,000 children in Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam 

Today is International Day of the Girl Child a day that celebrates girls and girlhood. It’s clear why international campaigners argue marriage has no place in childhood.  Here, in Ethiopia the government has pledged to eliminate the practice by 2025. Global concern about child marriage hinges on lost opportunities for girls, human rights issues, and from a purely health perspective, the increased risks of premature pregnancy, maternal and infant mortality and fistulas.

However, what international campaigners sometimes find hard to accept is that local concerns for girls’ wellbeing and protection from abduction, sexually-transmitted diseases, pregnancy, unsafe abortions and childbearing resulting in stigma are often the reasons given for promoting early marriage and for resistance to the ban on marriage. This is especially true for older teenagers who are already sexually active.

These reasons and the factors leading to adolescent marriage are highlighted in a new Young Lives publication released today The International Day of the Girl Child and in our recent research film.  

Declining trend

The positive news of course is that teenage girl marriage is decreasing in Ethiopia. Only one in ten girls in our study were married by 18, less than in the other three Young Lives study countries: Vietnam, Peru and especially India, where a third of girls were married. Reasons for this decline include the expansion of education, campaigns by government, NGOs and the media, and greater awareness of women’s rights.

Persistence and resistance

And yet the practice persists and has widespread support from parents and sometimes from girls themselves; we found that attempts to impose the ban have led to the practice going underground, with marriages held under the guise of other celebrations. The introduction of age checks was foiled by sending older daughters, and until birth registration becomes effective it’s not easy to enforce.

There are many reasons for this persistence. Customs of households forming alliances by marrying young children are common in Amhara among wealthier households (though the children are not allowed to engage in sex till they are deemed sufficiently mature).

‘Abduction’, allowed by custom as a form of marriage, often resorted to by poorer young men unable to pay bride-wealth, remains a serious threat as the severe penalties that the law allows are not imposed; this was graphically illustrated in the film Difret where a girl murders her abductor. Parents often opt for preemptive marriage for fear that girls travelling to distant secondary schools, to jobs or migrating will engage in risky pre-marital sex. Evidence of marked community differences in the extent of early marriage within regions suggest that there are hotspots.

Household poverty also leads to parents wanting children to start their own lives. In our study, girls who were still in school, and with parents and especially fathers who were more educated, were far less likely to get married in their teens. In contrast older teenage girls who were not doing well at school or who had already dropped out, or who were unable to afford costs of secondary schooling and those who faced poorly paid and physically arduous work were all more likely to get married in their teens. Family problems were also drivers. Single mothers often wished to see their daughters married and cared for. Girls spoke to us of marriage as a means to escape parental impositions and control by stepmothers.

Age and forced marriage

A ban on all marriage under the legal age of 18 tends to be viewed uniformly. However some observers suggest that more attention and scarce resources should be devoted to protecting pre-teen and early teenage girls where health risks are more severe and marriage generally enforced, whereas older teenagers, especially from 16, often have more agency and may agree to marriage or elope when other alternatives are limited. Enabling judicial dispensations for 16-17 year olds to marry with appropriate oversight, as is common in western countries, would be welcomed by communities, parents and children given the local concern with protecting girls from risks of abduction and teenage sex. We should also recognize the ability and desire of many of these young people to make their own choices. This, however, is a contentious issue for international observers who insist officials need to step in and prosecute all child marriages, regardless of whether they are ‘free choice’. 

Improving adolescent girls’ options

The drive to banish child marriage needs to go beyond a narrow focus on the age of marriage and address key constraints and opportunities facing adolescent girls. Limited access to contraception often leads to unsafe abortions, unwanted pregnancies, denial of paternity and support from both the child’s father and the girls’ family, and ostracism and discrimination result in serious difficulties for single mothers. Until we address these wider issues of sexual and reproductive health, and improve girls’ opportunities for education, training and work, marriage will always seem a better option.