I nn o c e n t i Di g e s t 7 –
E a r l y M a r r i a g e
Birth, marriage and death are the standardtrio of key events in most people’s lives.But only one – marriage – is a matter of choice. The right to exercise that choicewas recognized as a principle of law evenin Roman times and has long been estab-lished in international human rights instru-ments. Yet many girls, and a smaller num-ber of boys, enter marriage without anychance of exercising their right to choose.Some are forced into marriage at a veryearly age. Others are simply too young tomake an informed decision about theirmarriage partner or about the implicationsof marriage itself. They may have givenwhat passes for ‘consent’in the eyes of custom or the law, but in reality, consentto their binding union has been made byothers on their behalf.The assumption is that once a girl ismarried, she has become a woman – evenif she is only 12. Equally, where a boy ismade to marry, he is now a man and mustput away childish things. While the age of marriage is generally on the rise, earlymarriage – marriage of children and ado-lescents below the age of 18 – is still wide-ly practised.While early marriage takes many differ-ent forms and has various causes, one issueis paramount. Whether it happens to a girlor a boy, early marriage is a violation of human rights. The right to free and fullconsent to a marriage is recognized in the1948 Universal Declaration of HumanRights (UDHR) and in many subsequenthuman rights instruments – consent thatcannot be ‘free and full’when at least onepartner is very immature. For both girlsand boys, early marriage has profoundphysical, intellectual, psychological andemotional impacts, cutting off educationalopportunity and chances of personalgrowth. For girls, in addition, it will almostcertainly mean premature pregnancy andchildbearing, and is likely to lead to a life-time of domestic and sexual subservienceover which they have no control.
Yet many societies, primarily in Africaand South Asia, continue to support theidea that girls should marry at or soon afterpuberty. Their spouses are likely to be a fewyears older than they are, but may be morethan twice their age. Parents and heads of families make marital choices for daughtersand sons with little regard for the personalimplications. Rather, they look upon mar-riage as a family-building strategy, an eco-nomic arrangement or a way to protect girlsfrom unwelcome sexual advances.
Neglect of the rightsperspective
Social reformers in the first part of the20th century were concerned about earlymarriage, especially in India,
and influ-enced the UDHR and other human rightsconventions of the 1950s and 1960s. Inthe latter part of the 20th century, interestcentred on the behavioural determinantsfuelling rapid population growth, forobvious reasons.
Early marriage extends awoman’s reproductive span, thereby con-tributing to large family size, especially inthe absence of contraception.
More recently, advocates of safe moth-erhood have turned their attention to thisissue. Pregnancies that occur ‘too early’–when a woman’s body is not fully mature –constitute a major risk to the survival andfuture health of both mother and child.
Concern with the special health needs of adolescents has also recently been grow-ing in a world where young people areparticularly vulnerable to HIV/AIDS.
However, from a demographic andhealth perspective, early marriage is seenprimarily as a contributory factor to earlychild-bearing. And sometimes, even in thiscontext, its role is overlooked: the phrase‘teenage pregnancy’is typically understoodto mean pregnancy outside marriage. Yetfar more adolescent or teenage pregnanciesoccur within marriage than outside it.
During the past decade, the movementfor ‘Education for All’has stressed theneed to enrol more girls in school and tokeep them from dropping out before com-pletion.
In this context, the custom of early marriage is acknowledged as one of the reasons for girls’ exclusion fromschool, especially in cultural settingswhere girls are raised for a lifetime con-fined to household occupations and areexpected to marry very young.
Very recently, the situation of childrenin need of special protection, notably girlsvulnerable to sexual abuse and HIV/AIDS,suggests that early marriage is being usedas a strategy to protect girls from sexualexposure,
or to pass the economic bur-den for their care to others.
Thus, earlymarriage lingers on as a culturally andsocially sanctioned practice according tosome traditional sets of values and, amongsome highly stressed populations, it mayeven be on the rise.Despite the efforts of reformers in theearly part of the 20
century, early mar-riage has received scant attention from themodern women’s rights and children’srights movements. There has been virtual-