Girl, Interrupted

The young schoolgirl is in the front row of the dusty auditorium. Her feet don’t reach the floor. She swings her thin legs and shifts in the large wooden seat as the presentation to foreign visitors drones on. She could be any child anywhere. There is one notable difference: If her community had not intervened, she would not be a schoolgirl, but a wife.

She lives in the Amhara region of Ethiopia, where 50 percent of girls are married by age 15, and 80 percent by age 18. If current trends continue, 100 million girls—some as young as 7 or 8—in the developing world (predominantly South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa) will be married in the next 10 years.

Motivations for child marriage vary from region to region, and include custom and sometimes religious beliefs. But poverty is almost always a major factor. Sometimes, in a poor family, child marriage is seen as a way to eliminate one mouth to feed. Conversely, sometimes marriage is seen as a means of improving the girl’s or the whole family’s lot, by linking them to a family of greater means.

The cruel irony is that child marriage holds back entire communities in their socioeconomic development. Girls are pulled from school to be married, truncating the skills and options for both the girls and the children they will bear. As the International Center for Research on Women’s report Too Young to Wed puts it, “Girls who marry young are more likely to be poor and remain poor.”

The most tragic cost of child marriage is in lives lost. Girls between the ages of 10 and 14 are five times more likely to die in pregnancy and childbirth than women ages 20 to 24. Girls aged 15 to 19 are twice as likely to die. Infant mortality also increases: Young girls’ bodies often are not developed enough to successfully deliver an infant without medical intervention. Such intervention is nearly impossible in remote areas, and in very poor countries hard to get anywhere. One gynecologist in rural Ethiopia says he is the only OB/GYN that he knows of in a region of 2.5 million people. He regularly loses even adult women with routine delivery complications, in the hospital, because he lacks the basics, such as blood and sutures.

Risk for HIV infection is also higher among young girls than older women; marriage, of course, offers no protection if the husband is infected. Obstetric fistula (damage that causes chronic leakage of urine and feces) is also more prevalent among poor and young women. Often fistula sufferers are abandoned by their husbands and communities.

The pervasive negative ripple effects of child marriage are recognized by many governments and international aid agencies. For example, the Ethiopian government has named child marriage one of several “harmful traditional practices” that need to be eliminated, and has raised the legal age for marriage to 18. The most effective way to stop child marriage is through community-based education and intervention that engages civic leaders, religious leaders, school teachers, and girls themselves in the fight.

But in extremely poor countries, such local efforts can only be sustained with international help. A case in point: Marriage arrangements for that little girl in the auditorium in Amhara were cancelled through the intervention of a community health worker—whose training and tiny stipend came through a project administered by an NGO and supported in part by USAID funding.

Women, girls, and even many men in areas where child marriage is common are coming to see that it must stop. But in order to change the economic and cultural conditions that sustain the practice, these individuals have to be supported by resources from elsewhere for very basic supplies and training for education, health, and economic development.

To improve the U.S. government’s targeting and allocation of aid in the light of child marriage practices, Sen. Richard J. Durbin is seeking co-sponsors for the International Child Marriage Prevention and Assistance Act. Contacting your senators and asking them to sign on as co-sponsors is one small but significant step you can take to address the challenge of child marriage practices.

Julie Polter is an associate editor of Sojourners. She visited Ethiopia in February 2006 as part of a fact-finding trip on child marriage, sponsored by the International Center for Research on Women with support from the United Nations Foundation.

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