Four ways child marriage destroys children's futures
How child marriage hurts children in South Asia – and their countries
When children are married early, it crushes their dreams, causes lifelong and life-threatening health problems, locks them out of learning and crushes their potential. And it happens in South Asia at a shocking rate.
The region is home to nearly half of all child brides in the world – 290 million of them. And in recent years these numbers have been rising.
The decision to marry a child is driven by deep-seated social and religious views and financial hardship. In a region recently hit by COVID-19, climate disasters and economic shocks, more families have been left jobless, hungry and are often facing the heart-breaking dilemma of whether to marry their child off or send them to school.
Here’s how child marriage is robbing these children – and their countries – of their futures.
Child marriage locks children out of learning
When children get married, most stop going to school.
Girls are often pressured to prioritize housework and take care of the family. Boys are expected to work to support the family.
By dropping out of school, these children also lose the opportunity to learn, develop skills and explore their dreams. This puts them at a disadvantage by making it more difficult for them to get a secure well-paid job, live independently, and build a brighter future to pull their families out of poverty.
A lack of education also makes girls financially dependent on their husbands – trapping them in a cycle of poverty and reliance. And it hurts their countries.
Instead of being able to tap into a reservoir of young minds, ideas and energy, countries end up spending more supporting children with the social and health impacts of child marriage.
Early pregnancy puts girls’ and babies’ lives at risk
When girls get married, they’re usually pressured to bear children as quickly as possible. But their bodies aren’t ready for pregnancy yet – and neither are their brains.
Pregnancy is more dangerous when a mother is still a child herself. She has a higher chance of complications, including miscarriage, stillbirth and developing long-term, debilitating health conditions.
Despite these risks to child mothers and their babies, three quarters of all child brides give birth under the age of 18.
The youngest child mothers face the biggest risks. They are also the least likely to access healthcare – due to distance, embarrassment and the fear being stigmatised.
The result? Child brides have a higher risk of severe complications, and even death, during pregnancy and childbirth. If they die and their baby survives, they may not be guaranteed quality care or a stable upbringing. Many may be left behind as vulnerable orphans.
Girls married as children are at greater risk of domestic violence
Tragically, girls who are married before turning 18 are more likely to experience physical, sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of their husbands.
Harmful gender norms justify violence as a form of punishment, or a normal way to resolve conflict. Studies show that boys who are forced to marry at an early age are often more violent in their marriages.
And the younger the girls are, the less power they have to negotiate safe sex or refuse sex – putting their health and safety at risk.
Many child brides are put off reporting abuse out of shame and fear of retribution.
Child brides become isolated, and their mental well-being suffers
When girls are married, they’re often at the mercy of their husband’s control. Many are kept under constant supervision and are not allowed to socialize or interact with others, including their own family members.
Instead, they are confined to the home: caring for children, completing household chores and catering to the needs of their husband’s family.
Often, they have moved to different villages, away from everything they know, cut off from their support systems and friends and unable to make decisions.
This cocktail of isolation (and often abuse) causes child brides significant emotional distress, that can last their lifetimes. They may lose the ability and confidence to interact with others and be left feeling helpless and hopeless. Many may also suffer from chronic stress, worry, pain, fear, anxiety, depression and sleep disorders.
They usually find little sympathy or support in their new families, tragically leading some to take their own lives.
Others become conditioned into depending on others for everything and pass this on to their daughters as they grow up – creating a cycle of trauma, child marriage and dependency.
How can we end child marriage?
Eliminating child, early and forced marriage requires long-term and well-resourced efforts. But it can be done.
Individuals can help by speaking up and educating others on the harm child marriage does to children.
Governments need to implement clear policies and laws that protect children from child marriage and safeguard every child’s right to attend and complete primary and secondary education.
They also need to put in place comprehensive social protection measures to counter poverty with a focus on the poorest, most disadvantaged households. Programs to address social norms and promote positive behaviours among families, with a focus on men and boys are urgently needed as well.
And they need to make key health and support systems easily available to child marriage survivors. Helplines and access to trained counsellors and rehabilitation services can be life-changing for girls.
By investing in opportunities and education for girls, countries can stop them from being married off early, preventing trauma and heartbreak, and instead tap into their limitless potential.