Image Credit: Luis Vazquez/©Gulf News

Late in 2008, 9-year-old Yemeni girl Arwa, with her dark eyes, pale skin and black scarf, found herself married to a man more than four times her age. The man had offered her father 30,000 riyals, and a promise of another 400,000 in due course. 

At 9, Arwa’s frail and underdeveloped body was repeatedly fondled by her ‘husband’. Her tears, protests and attempts to fight his advancements were met by inhumane beatings. A few months into their marriage, the brave 9-year-old asked a neighbour to lend her money for the journey to court where the judge took pity on her and granted her freedom.

Arwa is one of many girls who were married off early. Every year, around 10 million girls under the age of 18 marry worldwide. That’s around one girl every three seconds (Plan International).

In Yemen, a quarter of all females marry before the age of 15, according to a 2009 report by the Ministry of Social Affairs. Though the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child considers marriage before the age of 18 a human rights violation, there are more than 50 million child brides worldwide. This number is expected to grow to 100 million child brides over the next decade.

It is often said that marriage is a union made in heaven and celebrated on earth, but child marriages are no cause for celebration. Child marriages mean that young, underdeveloped girls will see their childhood cut short. In many contexts, especially the most conservative of environments, girls will not have a say over whom they marry, or if they want to marry at all. They are expected to take up the role of wives and mothers even if they were as young as 11. 

With that role come even greater risks.  The effects of child marriages are long-lasting. They don’t just include physical heath, but also social, economic and physiological.

Childbirth is a miracle, but for women in poverty stricken nations like Afghanistan or Niger, it can be fatal.  According to WHO, approximately 1,000 women die every day from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. Those who do survive childbirth can carry permanent injuries.

One of the greater risks associated with early marriages is fistula; a condition where a woman’s tissue dies due to lack of blood flow to the area. This creates a hole between the birth passage and an internal organ, such as the bladder or rectum. Because of this condition, they are abandoned by their husbands and community for their foul smell and their inability to carry more children.

Younger girls are also more likely to contract HIV from their usually older husbands, who by virtue are more at risk of contracting the virus.  

Girls who marry young are more likely to have forced sexual relations. In Niger for example, where 13 is a common age for marriage, girls are sometimes forced to have sex before their first period. They are also prone to physical & emotional abuse. Child brides are very often socially isolated with minimum education, skill, employment or voice. As a result, they are more likely to remain entrapped in the same cycle of poverty that got them married early. 

Yes, it seems obvious, almost incomprehensible. A 9-year-old girl is a child, not a bride. Thus, let us not label it ‘early marriage’, let’s call it what it is; ‘Child marriage’. After all, ‘early’ is relative.

Why then is ‘child marriage’ still common in many parts of the world?

While the drivers vary, such as tradition, religion and gender inequality, poverty is at the forefront and a common underlying cause of this practice. Arwa’s case sheds light on how girls are often perceived as an economic burden, or an economic transaction.  In these unions, girls are married off in exchange for debt-clearance.

Countries around the world have made strides in their efforts to tackle this issue. At the forefront has been the UAE, where the minimum age for marriage has been set at 18. Permission to marry at a younger age is needed from a judge who must seek approval from the Ruler’s Court.

The minimum age in the UAE is higher than Kuwait and Bahrain, which is set at 16. The application of this policy in the UAE has lead to a significant decrease in early marriages. Between 1975 and 1995 the percentage of young women married between 15 and 19 years of age dropped from 57 per cent to an astonishing 8 per cent.

While a minimum age for marriage is defined in many other countries where ‘child marriage’ is a problem, the law is rarely enforced. In India, where the minimum age is set at 18, it is rarely accounted for in rural areas and punishments for breaking the law is seldom enforced. In many other countries such as Yemen and Saudi Arabia, legislation banning child marriage is still being debated and is continuously stalled by a few religious leaders.

Using several public platforms for example, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al Shaikh, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, repeatedly voiced his support of the marriage of underage girls. He stressed that, with the ‘right’ upbringing and education, girls can be ready to perform all marital duties at the age of 12 or even 10. Such declarations are highly regarded in an already conservative environment, making it more difficult to defend and fight against these practices.

The Saudi Shaikh’s reference to education is quite ironic. The truth is child marriages interrupt girls’ ability to exercise their fundamental right of obtaining an education. They often drop out of school shortly after, due to early pregnancies or because the family forbids it. 

Eight, ten and even 12-year-old girls should not be brides; but students behind wooden desks, with a notepad and a pencil.

It is now widely agreed that keeping girls in schools is one of the most effective and powerful ways to achieve later, consensual marriage. According to UNICEF, girls with seven or more years of education marry on average four years later and have fewer children than those with no education.

Schools also educate girls against violence and abuse. For most girls, staying in school means they don’t have to be child labours, or sold into prostitution. Schools also offer other productive alternatives.

An extra year of school can increase a girls’ lifetime income by 15 per cent and empowers her to exercise her fundamental rights to be able to participate in social and political decision-making. More importantly, girls who have completed at least secondary education and marry later are more likely to do the same with their children, breaking the inherited cycle of child brides and poverty. 

For every brave voices reverberating today like Arwa’s, there are hundreds, like Elham Assi who are eternally suppressed. Elham lived in the poor Yemeni village of Shueba, around 200km northwest of Sana’a. She was one of eight siblings. Elham was forced into marriage as part of a family arrangement. A few days later she was laying in a hospital bed, unconscious. Her older husband tied her down and forcefully had sex with her.  She died shortly after. Elham was only 13.

Asma Malik and Maria Hanif are both Development specialists. You can follow them on Twitter at www.twitter.com/AsmaIMalik and twitter.com/Maria_Hanif