In light of the UNICEF’s report yesterday, I thought I would talk a little bit about why some girls become pregnant so young. According to the report, girls who give birth before the age of 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than those over 20, and ever year about 70,000 young women between 15 and 19 die from complications from childbirth.
I am not going to talk about young women who become pregnant outside of marriage, and I want to be clear that when I speak about early marriage (marriage that involves a partner, mostly the woman or girl, who is very young, usually defined as under 18, but that i flexible), I am not seeking to condemn those who marry young by choice. Both of these populations are worthy of thier own discussions.
However, the UN report makes clear that early marriage is a large contributing factor to the early, and often dangerous, pregnancies of many young women and girls. And it goes further, the Washington Post summarizes
In addition, the report says adolescent wives are susceptible to violence, abuse and exploitation. Young brides are often forced to drop out of school, have few work opportunities and little chance to influence their own lives.
Dealing with early marriage is integral to dealing with issues of sexual and reproductive health, poverty, and development in many countries. Taking steps to eradicate what is often not a free choice for the young women is an important front on empowering change in thier status.
I attended a meeting yesterday on early (or "child") marriage, however, and it became clear to me that what seems like i would be a less than controversial issue, is definitely very complicated. There are arguments that trying to change this from the US or UN would be culturally imperialistic, telling other communities to do something without respect for thier traditions. There is merit to this and it is clear that when dealing with the issue of early marriage it is not effective or fair for a solution to simply be along the lines of the U.S. denying assistance money.
Another problem I had was the common usage of the term "child marriage" and the suggestion from many who work to solve this issue that we try to end most or all marriage for those below 18 everywhere (even though that is not even the law in the US). "Child marriage" spreads the image of a 9 year old silent victim to me, and I can tell you that the 18 year old widowed mother of 2 who I saw speak at the World Bank was no silent victim. The uniform age of 18 doesn’t seem to fit quite right either, because the meaning that 18 has here in the US (graduating high school, being able to vote) is not the same as the meaning (or lack of meaning) that it has in so many other communities.
The answer that I see to the problem of child marriage, then, does not lie simply in the US or the UN demanding compliance on the issue or promoting programs to keep young women and girls in school. The answer lies in the grassroots, in young people speaking for ourselves. It relies on my iYAN friends in Ethiopia and Nigeria explaining their complex cultural experiences around early marriage, and my friends here in the states to listen and try to relate to thier stories to work together to find a solution that empowers and respects young people, particularly young women to end unwanted early marriage and the health and development problems it causes.