ASIA - The phenomena of child marriage, the taking or marrying off a girl at an age that is well below what modern society deems socially acceptable, sounds like a practice that belongs in a history book rather than in the twenty-first century. However, though hard to believe, the practice not only exists in these modern times, but also that it is thriving. In fact, emerging evidence indicates that the marrying off these child brides is becoming more widespread in many parts of the world. Whether due to socioeconomic pressures or to cultural preferences, the world is witnessing a steady resurgence of the practice of child marriages in places such as Africa, the Middle East, and now more prevalent in Asia.
One country in particular which has experienced an increase in the number of child marriages is poverty-stricken Bangladesh. This country has been identified in a report by the International Center for Research of Women (ICRW) as number 3 on a list of the top 20 countries with the highest incidents of child brides. This is because nearly 68.7% of all Bangladeshi girls under the age of 18 are married off to older men. The drastic rise in the practice has become so prevalent in recent years that researchers describe it as a full-blown “epidemic”. According to current estimates, nearly one third of girls in the country are married off before they reach the age of 15. This figure is staggering, and girls who are married off at such a young age often face high rates of domestic abuse, increased risks in childbirth, and the prospect of life-long poverty. Unfortunately, in many rural areas of countries with emerging economies young women are often considered a burden. It is these societal standards which is sanctioned and even encouraged that families use to justify pressing their young daughters into marriage to older men.
Concomitant factors such as poverty, lack of education, and the destabilization of the economy from natural disasters like typhoons, which are known for causing widespread destruction in Southeast Asian countries, also play a role in propagating acceptance of this practice. Parents often resort to marrying off their daughters in order to save money to pay for the education of their sons who are seen as better able to support the family once they reach the age of maturity. Bangladesh is not the only country to face the ever increasing problem of child marriage. Afghanistan is another country in the region known to the world as a region of innumerable human rights abuses.
Many of these abuses are due to complex forces, such as the oppressive patriarchal culture, the violent influence of the Taliban, and the subjugation of women who are often publicly executed. Given these influences the marriage of young girls to older men seems a foregone conclusion. Here, and most notably in the country's north-eastern province of Badakhshan, women experience the most extreme lack of independence. In this nation plagued by chronic food shortages, brought about by decades-long conflicts in the region, girls are being sold and traded off at an alarming rate. The money that the families get for the sale of their daughters enable them to purchase food, livestock, or other necessities.
The situation is particularly bleak in Badakhshan which according to a report by the United Nations (U.N.). Young girls experience some of the highest rats of abuses and death at the hands of their husbands who are often decades their senior. These men repeated and violently rape their young brides, who once they become pregnant do not allow them to access prenatal care with the intention of isolating these girls. According to the ICRW young girls are most afflicted by the following.
- Premature Pregnancy: Child brides almost always bear children before they are physically - or emotionally - ready.
- Maternal Mortality: Girls younger than 15 are five times more likely to die during child birth or pregnancy than older women. Pregnancy-related deaths are the leading cause of mortality for girls aged 15 to 19 worldwide.
- Infant Mortality: Mortality rates for babies born to mothers under age 20 are almost 75% higher than for children born to older mothers. The children that survive are more likely to be premature, have a low birth weight, and are more at risk for contracting HIV/AIDS.
- Health Problems: Premature childbirth can lead to a variety of health problems for mothers, including fistula, a debilitating condition that causes chronic incontinence. Girls with fistula are often abandoned by their husbands and ostracized by society. There are approximately 2 million girls living with fistula, and 100,000 new cases every year.
- HIV/AIDS: Married girls may be more likely to contract sexually transmitted disease, including HIV/AIDS, than unmarried girls. Young girls are more physically susceptible to STD's, have less access to reproductive education and health services and are often powerless to demand the use of contraception. (Source: ICRW)
Girls under the age of 15 are most at risk to this tragic outcome because of their physical immaturity. These young girls also face the specter of contracting HIV from infected husbands. Experts are in agreement that the best way to counter this growing trend is by working to alleviate the country's desperately crippled economy.
While the prevalence of the practice is closely associated with poverty and destruction, this is not true in every country. China, for example, has experienced steady economic growth in the past several decades. Despite its overall financial stability, the country is also experiencing a rise in the number of child marriages. The increase in this practice is largely driven by political factors such as the long-standing one-child policy. This policy, first enacted in the late 1970's to alleviate China's issue with unchecked population growth, has in fact resulted in a problematic and wide scale gender imbalance. Thus, the country now has approximately 33 million more men than women in the country. Despite this, the cultural bias toward boys remains, particularly in the rural areas where parents routinely force their daughters to marry young so that they aren't a financial burden to the family.
Additionally, China’s gender gap has led to a dramatic rise in the rates of human trafficking. Young girls are being sold or kidnapped then smuggled out of the country to neighboring Vietnam. Those who aren't 'lucky' enough to be sold for purposes of marriage, face the horrifying specter of sex slavery. These girls, as young as 13-years-old, are sometimes sold by their parents who have been solicited by the smugglers to sell their daughters who are subsequently drugged as a means of controlling them while they are removed from their homes. The girls are then marketed to potential buyers and sold for the deplorable price of $3,000 or less.
Sadly, with the continued growth of China, and the growing need for increased human capital to produce low costs products which the West is increasing dependent upon. This has resulted in the rise of another type of enslavement of girls and women in the manufacturing sectors found in cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Tianjin, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen. Often chained to their work stations for up to 16 hours a day, they are not even allowed bathroom breaks in order to maximize high production at low costs.
The documentary 'Santa's Workshop' provides a chilling look into the abuse of the laborers in many Chinese factories. The majority of these workers are children and women. Thus, it is unfortunate and disheartening to realize that for a female to make it to adulthood having escape sexual enslavement or child marriage, is not a guarantee of avoiding future exploitation. There are many organizations dedicated to advocating for the rights of child brides, women, and forced labor, but this abuse, irrespective of the fact that it is occurring in locations quite foreign to us, should in no way inure us to the suffering these girls and women face. Nor to our obligation to remain engaged in trying to make a difference, even if this difference is as simple as sharing these statistics and stories with friends, family, and associates. In so doing we may become more conscious and conscientious, two things which help to complete us as human beings.