Child marriage (finally) seen as a health issue (in addition to one of human rights)

This was cross-posted to my new professional blog.

As someone who takes particular interest in the intersection of health and human rights, I am glad to see this issue gaining the attention at the crossroads it deserves. Child marriage, which has been covered in recent years by such high-profile publications as National Geographic, has long been decried a human rights violation of young girls around the world. It garnered special attention with the story of Nujood Ali, an extraordinary young Yemeni girl who, after being married off at age ten to a man three times her age, escaped to a courthouse and demanded a divorce. She published her memoirs in 2009, which put the Middle East in the spotlight for the problem, but child marriage happens all around the world – and, in the case of Haiti, much closer to home than we Americans usually tend to think. Now, as my colleague Tom Murphy has pointed out on Humanosphere, child marriage is beginning to receive the attention it needs from the global health side as well.

Long considered an issue of human rights, the conversation about child marriage is shifting to that of health and education. Girls married too young are denied the educational opportunities of their peers and are put at greater health risks, such as HIV and teen pregnancy.

What may seem like a distant problem, child marriage is found in every part of the world. Ending the global practice will unleash opportunity for millions of women and girls.

(Side note: I promise that Humanosphere is not the only global health blog I follow, but I find it to be one of the most informative and well-rounded, so I link back to it a lot. Perhaps I need to lengthen my blogroll.)

At a glance, it’s easy enough to see both the health and the human rights problems with child marriages. First and foremost, the girls are married against their will, or without full knowledge of what it happening to them. Many of the girls are raped and abused; a few high-profile cases have featured girls who died of internal bleeding or fistula after their “husbands” finished with them. Teenage pregnancy, being cut off from education, perpetuating poverty cycles. The list goes on and on.

Unfortunately, it is just as easy to see that the solutions are not so simple; as the National Geographic feature points out, we cannot just “rescue” the girls by carrying them off into the sunset, as Nick Kristoff occasionally does. The reasons for these traditions are culturally ingrained and have to be addressed at the community level.

Efforts to reduce this number are mindful of the varied forces pushing a teenager to marry and begin childbearing, thus killing her chances at more education and decent wages. Coercion doesn’t always come in the form of domineering parents. Sometimes girls bail out on their childhoods because it’s expected of them or because their communities have nothing else to offer. What seems to work best, when marriage-delaying programs do take hold, is local incentive rather than castigation: direct inducements to keep girls in school, along with schools they can realistically attend. India trains village health workers called sathins, who monitor the well-being of area families; their duties include reminding villagers that child marriage is not only a crime but also a profound harm to their daughters.

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