by Nguyen Thu Hien
KUALA LUMPUR (VNS)— More than 140 million girls worldwide will become child brides by 2020 if the global community fails to take child marriage seriously and hold themselves accountable for girls' welfare.
This was said by experts at a meeting on ending child marriage, as an event of the global Women Deliver conference held in Kuala Lumpur.
Sarita Prabkakar Wagh, a 20-year-old Indian girl, said most of girls in her village had to get married before 18 years old without knowing about the physical changes taking place during adolescence and relationships between boys and girls.
Living in a small village where most people are marginal farmers, Sarita became afraid of being married off when she was very small.
Her fear was reasonable because every year 14 million girls were married before they reached the age of 18, said Lakshmi Sundaram, Global Coordinator of Girls Not Brides, a global partnership of more than 250 non-governmental organisations dedicated to ending child marriage.
In the developing countries, one in three girls were married by age 18, and one in nine by age 15, some as young as eight or nine, she said.
Dr V Chandra-Mouli of the World Health Organisation's Department of Reproductive Health and Research said child marriage was a global issue but rates varied dramatically. However, in both proportions and numbers, most child marriages took place in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
Off the radar
Sundaram said: "Child brides fall off our radar and the sexual, emotional and physical burdens they face are ignored."
Child marriage encouraged the initiation of sexual activity at an age when girls' bodies were still developing and the risks of pregnancy and childbirth were high, she said.
Chandra-Mouli added that complications in pregnancy and childbirth were the leading causes of death for girls aged 15-19 in developing countries
Experts agreed child marriage did not only impact on girls' health but also affected every aspect of their development.
Sundaram said child marriage was a violation of human rights because girls lost their opportunity for education. They lost the opportunity to choose their partner and must live with that pain for the rest of their lives.
Moreover, some parents believed early marriage would protect their daughters from sexual violence, but the reverse was often the case, she said
Chandra-Mouli said child marriage had caused negative impacts on both girls and their babies because children were having children.
So, it affected from this generation to the next generation, he said.
Nevertheless, the World Policy Analysis Centre revealed that girls were only legally protected from marriage until were 18 or older without any exceptions in only 12 countries.
Experts suggested it was necessary to empower girls by improving their access to quality education and livelihood skills.
The Indian girl Sarita said she luckily escaped from a child marriage because she had a chance to attend a course of life skills held by a non-governmental organisation at the age of 14.
She learnt about importance of education for girls, gender discrimination, reproductive health and how to respond to harassment and molestation by boys.
She tried to persuade her parents who finally let her continue her education "to enable me to stand on my own feet and do something meaningful in life".
"If life skills education is universalised, it will empower girls and make them capable of taking decisions for their own lives, like it did for me."
Experts also said there should be initiatives to raise public awareness of legislation that sets a minimum legal age for marriage of at least 18.
Governments in countries where child marriage is prevalent should strengthen birth and marriage registration systems, protect girls from violence in the home, improve their ability to access justice, and secure their property rights, they said.
However, they agreed laws alone wouldn't end child marriage. Attitudes and social norms such as girls being less valuable than girls should be changed.
Sarita said her parents had been condemned by their neighbours for supporting her decision.
She is now studying a Diploma in Teachers Education with a desire to "become a teacher so that I can touch the lives of girls in my village.
"If you delay the marriage of girls, encourage and promote girl's education and make them independent, they in turn will ensure the education and progress of their own families and communities." — VNS