Tuesday, November 08, 2005

c h i l d b r i d e s

THEY'RE married off at the rate of 25,000 each day. That's each day, not each year.
Child brides are those who are married before the age of 18. In several countries, these young marriages are actually the norm. The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) gives some startling figures, noting that in Niger, 82 percent of girls would have been married by the age of 18. In Bangladesh, the figure is 75 percent, in Mali it's 63 percent, in Ethiopia and India it's 57 percent.
Some readers are probably not too shocked, having seen teenagers getting married, but when we talk about child brides, we include quite a large number of very young girls. In Nepal, according to the ICRW, 7 percent of girls are married before the age of 10. By the age of 15, 40 percent would have been married.
Again, one could be callous and ask, "So?" Mary, the mother of Jesus, was probably about 14 or 15 when she was pregnant, again reflecting norms that persisted for many centuries in many societies. Many of us, myself included, might in fact have grandmothers or great-grandmothers who were married at a very young age.
Last week I attended the Global Health Council's annual conference in Washington and one of the main themes discussed was early marriage, with several papers discussing the terrible consequences on individuals and on societies of such traditions.
Some of the problems these child brides face deal with biology. Sexual intercourse, pregnancy and childbirth all carry risks for these young girls because their bodies aren't quite prepared for the physiological stress. There are all kinds of complications accompanying pregnancy, including a prolapse of the uterus (buwa in Filipino). A Tagalog aphorism about a pregnant woman having one foot in the grave probably grew out of observations of the many young girls who died delivering a child (literally, a child delivering a child, when you think about it).
I was struck though by one of the presentations at the Global Health Council meeting where they showed death rates of young mothers. The figures were astronomically high for developing countries, but when they showed the figures for teenage mothers in the United States, the death rate was miniscule. The point made by the speaker was that the health risks for child brides go beyond biology and may in fact be largely determined by society and culture, such as the type of health care provided.
Certainly, there's a world of a difference between a 13-year-old American girl and her counterpart in, say, Bangladesh. Young girls in Third World countries are much more vulnerable because they are practically powerless. They are married off to men they may have never seen before. Once married, they become their husband's property, there to serve the husband's family and to bear his children. In such settings, they are much more prone to abuse from the husband and his family.
In many countries, the power inequality between the bride and the groom is amplified by a large age difference, meaning the male is often much older than the child brides. Dr. Judith Bruce of the Population Council pointed out how this age difference increases the risks of the child brides for sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS: Because the men are older, they would have had more sexual partners, including the possibilities of having acquired HIV/AIDS. In other cases, these older men continue to have unprotected sex with many partners even after marrying the young bride.
Bruce had statistics to show that these child brides are at greater risk of being infected with HIV because as someone who is married, they have sex more often than a sexually active single girl, and that sex is almost always unprotected since obviously she cannot ask her husband to use a condom. In fact, these young brides are often under intense pressure to start having children as early as possible.
Bruce and the other speakers emphasized that this tradition of early marriage is part of a cycle of poverty. It is mainly in poor families where you have early marriage. In urban slums and rural areas, parents will not invest in the education of their daughters because they see them as liabilities, girls who will leave them eventually. Sometimes, the poverty pushes them to marry off their daughters as early as possible.
Once married, these girls will no longer be able to stay in school. They tend to be socially isolated, sequestered at home to raise another generation of children where daughters are again deprived of opportunities to break out of the intergenerational cycles of early marriage and poverty.
Ultimately, society pays for this. The young brides, as well as their children, face greater risks for illness and death. The young brides also represent "wasted human capital," reduced to becoming baby-makers.
What's the situation in the Philippines? Officially, our Family Code prescribes a minimum age of 18 for marriage, but there are quite a number of exceptions here. Indigenous communities, for example, are allowed to use custom law for marriages, which can mean very young brides and grooms.
In addition, Presidential Decree 1083, issued during the time of Marcos, prescribes Sharia or Islamic law for marriages, allowing "any Muslim male at least fifteen years of age and any Muslim female of the age of puberty or upwards" to get married. The law actually states that a Sharia court can order marriage for a girl aged between 12 and 15.
Many of these early marriages among cultural minorities and Muslims will be arranged, which means the young brides have little negotiating power to protect themselves from abuse.
Let's not forget, too, that even among Christian Filipinos, it's common to fake the age of a young couple where the girl has become pregnant and the family wants to rush a marriage. To avoid social stigma, a young girl is condemned to an early marriage. The only consolation we have here is that in these situations, the early pregnancy and marriage are more likely to have occurred because of courtship, involving a young male and female. The power inequality would not be as problematic, but "love" itself, as we know too well, doesn't necessarily mean a better life for the young couple, especially the bride.
I have a student who is doing her doctoral research on these young couples, her research site being a typical lowland Christian community in one of the Central Luzon provinces. I'm hoping other graduate students will do similar research in other settings, including our cultural minority groups, on a topic around which there's too much silence, and acceptance.

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