Expert Panel Calls for Action Against Early Marriage

10 May 2002
Author: UNFPA

UNITED NATIONS, New York - An expert panel warned today that early marriage truncates many life opportunities for girls, violating their human rights and often negatively impacting their health. The experts, gathered to discuss the dangers of early marriage at a specially convened meeting during the United Nations Special Session on Children, also challenged the international community to commit itself to focus on the social, economic and cultural issues that lead to early marriage.

Statistics show that 82 million of those girls currently between 10-17 years of age will be married as children, before the age of 18. Although in some countries the legal age of marriage is 18, earlier marriages take place because the law is not followed, not enforced, or contains provisions that allow the marriage to take place with parental permission.

Early marriage can have disastrous effects on the human rights of girls. Married girls are often less knowledgeable about key reproductive health concerns and are more isolated than their unmarried peers. Married girls are also disadvantaged relative to their married peers with regards to rights, social access and life options. The education of the girls especially suffers, since married girls are rarely found in schools.

Early marriage carries distinct and severe health risks. Although marriage is often perceived as a gateway to safe and socially sanctioned sexual relations, it does not reduce, and sometimes actually increases exposure to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS. Married girls have higher levels of sexual activity than their sexually active unmarried peers, have limited ability to negotiate condom usage and have low power to refuse sex from their partner. Additional health risks are brought upon married girls by the pressure on them to become pregnant.

"New brides are under intense pressure to have a child shortly after marriage. It's part of her gender role, part of her submission," stated Judith Bruce, with the Gender, Family and Development Group of the Population Council.

According to Dr. France Donnay of the Technical Support Division, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), early pregnancy can lead to obstetric fistula, especially in developing countries. A cruel injury caused by complications during childbirth, obstetric fistulas create a constant leakage of urine or feces. Girls and young women suffering from fistulas are ostracized by their communities and abandoned by their families, forcing many to become desperate beggars.

Wariara Mbugua, of the Gender Issues Branch of UNFPA, stated that in order to provide a strong enabling environment for promoting later age at marriage, it is essential to address a host of other pertinent issues at the household and community levels though a rights-based approach. Projects that focus on a rights-based approach have resulted in positive effects, including in Bangladesh, where UNFPA has used such an approach in addressing the promotion of gender equity.

Nadia, a twelve-year-old girl from Afghanistan, also asked to speak at the expert meeting. Through an interpreter and in front of hundreds of grown-ups, she said, "I have a plea that we girls do not become women before passing through our childhood. Many of my friends get married at my age and become pregnant. They do not go to school. You must help."

Contact Information:

William A. Ryan
Tel.: +66 2 288 2446

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