Too young to know: Impact of child marriages

June 3, 2013 Staff Corner 0

Too young to know: Impact of child marriages

By Cecilia Mabior

Child marriages are most common in Africa, South Asia and some Middle Eastern countries. The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) reports that 48 percent of girls under the age of 18 from South Sudan are forced into marriage. Child marriages, or early marriages, are an accepted part of South Sudanese culture and are commonly practiced as tradition. In addition, poor families will often force their pre-teen girls into marriages to relieve economic burdens.

Human Rights Watch recently released a reported on child marriages, documenting narratives from the girls and women as well as officials, community leaders and human rights workers. Mary K., now a young woman, had been forced into marriage after a betrothal at age 12. Her  dream was to become a social worker; however, her father refused to allow her to attend school  and believed marriage would bring her respect in the community. When Mary refused to get married, she was beaten badly by her family and forced into sex with the man, sealing her fate because of the high value placed on virginity in the culture. The dowry offered for Mary was 120 cows.

Marriage is a respectable and admirable institution when it is undertaken at the appropriate age and with consent. However, the effects of forced marriages are dire not only for girls and women, but also for community health and development. Forced marriages invariably involve forced sex because a child is involved and consequently can physically and psychologically damage girls and women; prompt an increase in sexually transmitted diseases; lead to more infant and maternal deaths because of early motherhood; perpetuate exploitation, gender-based discrimination and violence, female illiteracy and poverty. In addition, early marriages rob women of their childhood as well as the chance at finding happiness and intimacy with a compatible partner. Although the definition of “childhood” may vary in different cultures, what is important to include in usage of the terms, child marriage or early marriage, is the factor of consent.

As a former refugee from South Sudan, I am outraged to learn about the spurt in child marriages.  I often ask myself, “Where would I be if I had not come to the United States?” And I also consider the possibilities of being a victim of child marriage in such a situation. Furthermore, I worry about the practice being surreptitiously transported into the United States. In a time when societies around the world are committing themselves to gender equality and ensuring human rights, it is an atrocity that countries such as South Sudan allow the practice of early marriage.

Besides governmental laws that offer safety, security and stability, communities should be mobilized to transform cultures. As a multilingual advocate at Nisaa: African Women’s Project, based in Des Moines, Iowa, I am trying to do just that: having critical dialogues with the South Sudanese community on the negative effects of child marriages and the importance of early childhood education. I am attempting to get the community started in the right direction.

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