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Early marriage strips children, especially girls, of their childhood

Every year, millions of girls disappear into early marriage - defined as formal marriages or customary and statutory unions recognized as marriage before the age of 18 (at 18 a girl is still considered a child under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, except in countries where the age of majority is lower). Following marriage a girl is expected to set aside her childhood and assume the role of a woman, embarking immediately upon a life that includes sex, motherhood and all the household duties traditionally expected of a wife.

Although early marriage extends to boys as well, the number of girls involved is far greater. According to an analysis of household survey data for 49 developing countries conducted by UNICEF in 2005, 48 per cent of South Asian females aged 15-24 had married before age 18. The corresponding figures in the 29 countries surveyed for Africa and eight countries for Latin America and the Caribbean are 42 per cent and 29 per cent respectively. The incidence varies widely between countries as well as continents: In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, Niger had the highest rate of women between 20-24 who were married by age 18 (77 per cent); in contrast, this rate dropped to 8 per cent in South Africa. [figure 3.3]

Some of these girls are forced into marriage at a very early age, while others may accept the marriage while being too young to understand its implications or play any active part in the choice of partner. Where early marriage is practised, it is usually a long-established tradition, making protest not only difficult but barely possible. It tends to ensure that a wife is firmly under male control, living in her husband's household; it also supposedly guards against premarital sex for women.

In many societies, the independence that can emerge during adolescence is seen as an undesirable attribute in a woman expected to be subservient: Early marriage is therefore convenient because it effectively cancels out the adolescent period, quenching the sparks of autonomy and strangling the developing sense of self.

Poverty is another factor underpinning early marriage. In many cultures young girls are considered an economic burden on the family and marriage can be seen as a survival strategy - the more so if it is to an older and wealthier husband. In West Africa, for example, a UNICEF study in 2000 showed a correlation between economic hardship and a rise in early marriage, even among some population groups that do not normally practise it. There are also reports from East Africa that girls orphaned by HIV/AIDS are increasingly being steered towards early marriage by caregivers who find it hard to provide for them.

However it arises, early marriage jeopardizes the rights of children and adolescents. The right to free and full consent to marriage is recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, while article 16 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women says specifically, "The betrothal and the marriage of a child shall have no legal effect...". Early marriage can put an end to all educational development and opportunities for children. All too often it is the gateway to a lifetime of domestic and sexual subservience.

Early marriage also has physical implications for young girls, notably premature pregnancy and childbirth, which entail vastly increased risks of maternal and neonatal mortality. Pregnancy-related deaths are the leading cause of mortality for 15-to-19-year-old girls worldwide, whether they are married or not - and those under 15 are five times more likely to die than women in their twenties. Their children are also less likely to survive: If a mother is under 18, her baby's chance of dying in the first year of life is 60 per cent higher than that of a baby born to a mother older than 19.