Allowing early marriage is a retrograde
by Thu Van
The phrase "Sweet Sixteen" is there for a reason.
I remember when I was 16 and in grade ten, how I cried over the news that a member of a famous pop music group had got married.
Before the heart-breaking news smashed my dreams and aspirations, my path ahead was clear. I would get a scholarship and go the US and marry him.
Today, I can look back and shake my head and have a laugh at my teenage fantasies.
Today, I am shaking my head, but laughter is the farthest thing from my mind. I just heard lawmakers in Viet Nam are proposing lowering the legal marriageable age from 18 to 16.
I knew this could not be true. There must have been some misunderstanding. I looked for clarifications and instead, to my astonishment, found justifications made by members of the drafting committee for the amended Law on Marriage and Family.
Ngo Thi Huong, who holds a PhD from Ha Noi Law University, cited the fact that in many localities, mostly remote and mountainous areas, ethnic minority girls and boys below 18 are still living together and having children. She said because of such customs still exist and are followed, we need to amend the law accordingly.
Another member, Pham Quoc Anh, President of the Viet Nam Bar Association, said girls and boys now grow up faster than previous generations due to their access to mass media, so we should let them get married earlier.
Even the Minister of Justice, Ha Hung Cuong, weighed in on the issue, saying lowering the marriageable age from 18 to 16 is "not too much". He said when one is 17 years and a day old, he or she is considered 18. So actually, the new marriage age, if approved, would only be lowered by one year compared to the current regulation.
All I can do is to shake my head some more and say I respectfully disagree with the above "experts."
My nephew, who just turned 19, is still confused about what he wants. Last May he told me he wanted to study law. Six months later he said he wanted to study nuclear energy abroad. But it's okay not to be certain now, because he still has time to decide which path he is going to pursue. In the years to come, he will become more mature, understand life a bit more, and will keep making choices based on the experiences he has.
Importantly, he will make his career choices, stand on his own legs and be ready to settle down before he decides to get married (or not).
At 16, whether she or he has grown up in the village or in an urban locality in our society, is still an adolescent who is at a transformative stage, and not very emotionally stable to make far-reaching decisions on things like marriage.
Physically, yes, even at 14, girls can give birth. But marriage is not about the ability to give birth. It is about living together with a partner, preparing to be parents, being ready to rear children and preparing them to meet life's challenges.
And at 16, one is still in high school and still has two more years to go before he or she graduates.
Medical experts have said 16 is not the ideal age to bear babies and give birth. They have also said early marriages can become a population growth challenge and lead to more obstetrical accidents.
Apart from the physical and emotional readiness for starting a family life, we cannot afford to ignore the economic perspective, especially in these market-economy oriented days.
Would 16-year-old boys and girls be able to handle the economic challenge of raising a family?
I read every day in Vietnamese newspapers, both online and print editions, that young people in the country lack the experience and skills to cope with life situations and challenges. Marriage is a complicated relationship and would require more experience and skills than most other situations.
Meanwhile, the divorce rate of Viet Nam has been on the rise in recent years, showing more and more adults are failing the marriage test. In 2005, there were about 55,000 divorce cases. In 2008, the number was 65,000 and this went up to 79,000 in 2009. In 2011, it was more than 88,000.
The rate of divorce among couples aged 18 to 30 accounts for 35 per cent of the total, it is said.
Going back to the argument of backing the ethnic minority custom of early marriage, it was just two days ago that this very newspaper carried a story about a ninth grade girl publicly threatening to commit suicide rather than get married. She also said she wanted to continue her studies.
This girl can be considered more mature than some of the adults around, it seems.
None of the arguments I have heard so far have failed to convince me that there are justifiable grounds for lowering the marriage age to 16. No scientific or even sociological evidence has been cited.
Authorities should brainstorm and find solutions to help children and youth better protect themselves from the negative impacts of a fast-changing society, instead of considering retrograde steps.
If children are having sex at earlier age, the answer is to educate them about safe sex. We cannot tell them: "Well, now you can have sex legally at 16, so try to wait for a few more months."
We need future generations that are well educated and prepared to tackle many challenges that the country is set to face. Allowing them to get married at 16 will not help.
Let us not open the door to making sweet sixteen a bitter experience. — VNS