Kessler is in 12th grade and this is her second year in Journalism. She plays golf and is co-captain of the speech team. In her free time, she enjoys reading...
When Child Marriage is No Fiction
September 26, 2022
This year, 12 million girls will be married off before 18, many of them against their will. One out of every five girls will leave their family and be forced to live with men many times their age and bear them children. Every minute, 23 girls worldwide are sold by their parents (usually their fathers) in order to earn money that is then used to feed the rest of the family.
This practice is illegal, but surprisingly common in certain parts of the world, particularly the Middle East. In underdeveloped countries such as post-Taliban Afghanistan, many families struggle to earn enough money to buy food. Selling off children, usually daughters to men years older than them, serves two purposes. First, the family has one less mouth to feed. Second, the bride-price that the girls are sold for earns the family enough money to eat for a few weeks. Poor economic conditions have led some families to take drastic measures. According to UNICEF, some Afghan families have offered up daughters as young as 20 days old for a future marriage in exchange for a dowry. This practice is reminiscent of the arranged marriages common in Europe a hundred or more years ago, although it swaps political maneuvers for economic stability.
Instances of this appalling tradition have increased in Afghanistan in the past few years. The COVID-19 pandemic and Taliban takeover have forced many women to leave their jobs, robbing some households of their single breadwinners. The inability of girls to go to school or have jobs has encouraged parents to resort to drastic measures in order to scrounge a few more dollars for food or other necessities. The dowries that girls ages 12-18 can earn will allow a family to buy food for months.
Afghan child marriages are even more dismaying when the numbers are examined. According to UNICEF, over 20% of Afghan women under the age of 50 were married before the age of 18. This incredibly young age is partially due to Afghanistan’s early minimum age for marriage, which is age 15. Of course, some desperate families will sell off or promise their daughters as soon as they reach puberty.
Since the girls have reached puberty, they are able to bear children. This leads to some more devastating statistics. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), a global sexual and reproductive health agency, almost 10% of Afghan girls between the ages of 15 and 19 give birth every year. The majority of these births are to girls who have been forced into an underage marriage. These teenage pregnancies and childbirths lead to an excess of deaths in those aged 15-19. UNFPA states that 0.5% of Afghan girls die in pregnancy-related complications or childbirth each year. This mortality rate is especially dire because only 0.26% of women aged 20-24 die from the same causes each year. Other complications and diseases related to childbirth are more prevalent in those who were married at a young age.
Teenage pregnancy is not the only terrible aspect of child marriages. UNICEF reports that teenagers who are married early are “less likely to remain in school and more likely to experience domestic violence, discrimination, abuse, and poor mental health.” They are also, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), more likely to flee their communities and/or commit suicide to escape the marriage.
Unfortunately, these issues are not solely located in third-world countries. Even in the United States, only 7 out of 50 states have laws setting the minimum age at 18 and eliminating any exceptions. In the 43 states that have not set 18 as the minimum wage, children can get married as young as 10 with parental consent. According to EqualityNow.org, many states also have “statuatory rape” exceptions that allow adults to have intercourse with children under that age if they are married to each other. This, EqualityNow.org states, “allows an adult to engage in sexual activity with children as young as 12.”
Although child marriage is much rarer in America, it is still is legal and does exist. It is an easy way for older men (and occasionally women) to exploit teens and preteens whose families are in need of money. The U.S. is a tragic mirror of what happens in the rest of the world, especially in places where the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged families and left them destitute. A lack of education and future job opportunities, especially for girls, means this is a horrifying reality that many girls will face.
Many companies have pledged to help end child marriage, and it is easy to help them. Vote for bills that aim to raise the voting age, donate to drives designed to help girls escape from underage marriages, and support organizations that promote education and job creation for girls across the world. This is a complex problem, but the steps to starting a solution are simple.