How young is too young to be married? These days, most parents probably hope their kids wait until they’re at least in their twenties to walk down the aisle. And, in fact, according to the U.S. Census bureau, “The median age at first marriage increased to 28.2 for men and 26.1 for women in 2010.”
But in many countries, poverty overrules choice. This week, The Washington Post reported, “Niger has the world’s highest rate of child marriage, with roughly one out of two girls marrying before age 15, some as young as 7. As a hunger crisis affects millions here and across the Sahel region of West Africa, aid workers are concerned that struggling parents might marry off their daughters even earlier for the dowries they fetch, including animals and cash, to help the families survive.”
They go on to note that, “Child marriage is a global phenomenon, but it is more prevalent in Africa and southern Asia. In many poor communities, girls are viewed as commodities, used as currency or to settle debts. To protect them in dire economic times, girls are sometimes married into more affluent families.”
Supporting the notion that this is in no way an isolated occurrence, UNICEF has stated that, “Globally, 36 per cent of women aged 20–24 were married or in union before they reached 18 years of age. An estimated 14 million adolescents between 15 and 19 give birth each year. Girls in this age group are twice as likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth as women in their twenties.”
CARE, a leading humanitarian organization fighting global poverty, has also pointed out, “Unfortunately, this problem is more prevalent than you might think—more than 60 million girls under the age of 18 are married, many to men twice their age or older.”
Beyond these heartbreaking statistics are heartbreaking stories and faces. A June 2008 article in The New York Times described how, “Arwa Abdu Muhammad Ali walked out of her husband’s house here and ran to a local hospital, where she complained that he had been beating and sexually abusing her for eight months...That alone would be surprising in Yemen, a deeply conservative Arab society where family disputes tend to be solved privately. What made it even more unusual was that Arwa was 9 years old.”
How can we solve a problem that’s so culturally ingrained in many societies? UNICEF advises that, “Governments need to establish 18 as the legal age of marriage for girls, as well as boys, and ensure its implementation. Promoting birth and marriage registration will help enforce these laws.”
Clearly, that will be easier said that done. But raising awareness is hopefully a first step.
What can we do to help eliminate the dire consequences of child marriage?
Lawrence Karol is a freelance writer and editor who lives in New York City in a mid-century-modern-inspired apartment with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet editor, who enjoys writing about design, food, and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence