Most girls begin planning their weddings when they play â€œdress-upâ€ as children. They attend numerous weddings, watch Disney movies, and look forward to â€œhappily ever afterâ€ after they find their â€œprince.â€ Unfortunately for many girls in South Asian villages, marriages instead lead to living with a man they hardly know who is much older, marking the end of their schooling and commencing a lifetime of domestic and sexual subservience through premature pregnancies and in many cases, early death.
Entrenched in culture and religion and long hidden in shadow, child marriage was denounced by the United Nations as a serious human-rights violation in 2001.
South Asia, known around the world for its rich culture and exuberant people, is also known for its often feudal lifestyles. The concept of child brides plays a disastrous role in perpetuating the feudal system still prevalent in lower-class South Asian communities. In the age of internet dating, womenâ€™s suffrage, and human rights â€“ society continues to struggle to rid itself of inexplicable past customs, such as that of child marriages.
Child marriage occurs predominately for two reasons: (1) to preserve the virginity of the child by marrying them at an earlier age; or (2) as a way of â€œsellingâ€ daughters to settle a debt owed or a feud between two families (â€œvaniâ€). In either case, the children have no say in the situation and are rarely aware of it until it is time for them the â€œwidayiâ€ or the custom of giving the daughter away to her in-laws. Gender inequality and discrimination, persecution, preserving a girl’s virginity and family honor, gender-based violence, and poverty, are also contributing factors.
The most obvious risks for a child bride are physical. These children are married within a short time from their first menstrual cycle. A child bride faces greater health risks and experiences real physical violation and trauma as her young body is forced to deal with early sexual activity. During this time, it is highly likely that they will become pregnant at a young age because birth control is not used in villages in South Asia.
According to the World Health Organization, pregnancy-related deaths are the leading cause of death worldwide for girls 15 to 19 years old. As child brides, girls under the age of 15 are five times more likely to die of pregnancy-related complications than women in their 20s. Medical relief groups believe that at least 2 million women worldwide are currently living with gruesome vaginal and anal ruptures, resulting from bearing children much too young.
Therefore, along with the painful experience of sex, these girls are often impregnated in their early teen years and experience pregnancy and childbirth at a time when their bodies have barely matured.
These child brides also have to mature emotionally at a rapid pace. At a young age, they are propelled into the roles of a wife, a daughter-in-law in a joint family system, and often into the role of a mother. Before they are capable of taking care of themselves, the situation coerces them into taking responsibility of elderly in-laws and infant children.
Often treated as indentured servants, young brides suffer beatings by their husbands and in-laws, and thousands of these girls end up trapped in the sex trade business â€“ whether through organized child bride trafficking rings, or by simply drifting from abusive marriages into street prostitution.
Confined to their husbandsâ€™ homes, these child brides suffer the more subtle, but most far-reaching injustice of being pried out of school. Cheated out of the benefits of education, these demoralized children are condemned to lives of ignorance and dire poverty from which they rarely escape. Without education, they perpetuate the emotional and physical trauma of child marriage because they have not been exposed to anything else.
While child marriages will not come to an instantaneous end, it is important to raise awareness of the issue and work against it. And perhaps, with some international awareness and pressure â€“ this â€œtraditionâ€ will come to an end. – BENISH SHAH