Stop Negotiating Their Childhood!

Girls Not Brides

Source: Asia News

Gender equality is a term trending for positive reasons across the globe. Nevertheless, history is proof that women and minority genders face oppression and inequality. Restricted freedom of rights and expression for multiple reasons be it cultural, taboos or result of a patriarchal society violates basic rights of affected women and children. Yet, many overcome fear, crossing barriers to challenge boundaries and achieve success.

Here we are celebrating every woman on the 8th of March. However, young girls across the globe are still facing a major challenge every day because of child marriage, sometimes in exchange for monetary benefits. Child marriages disproportionately affect girls more than boys due to poverty, cultural & religious customs, illiteracy, child bride price, dowry among many other reasons. Even more so during the Covid-19 pandemic, as it pushes back the fierce efforts of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

Both UNICEF and UNFPA are driving impactful initiatives worldwide, aimed at addressing inequalities and gender equality. One of the main goals is to stop violation of human rights in the name of rituals and practices much like the baby tossing ritual, intimate partner violence, child brides & marriages among many others. The focus here is to protect and uplift vulnerable children & women to attain a life of equal rights and opportunities.

Child marriage is an egregious violation of every child’s right to reach her or his full potential. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) enshrine a target to eliminate this practice by 2030”

Source: United Nations Children’s Fund, Ending Child Marriage: Progress and prospects, UNICEF, New York, 2014

The global number of child brides is now estimated at 650 million, including girls under age 18 who have already married and adult women who married in childhood” – UNICEF

Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asian countries, and the Caribbean account for the highest numbers of child brides and teen pregnancy. ‘One in five girls gets married below the age of 15 in South Asia’. Culturally, young girls forcibly drop out of school in most south Asian countries in exchange for a wedding vow. Malnutrition, reduced literacy rates and higher domestic violence are hence common scenarios for child brides. Child brides usually bear pregnancy at a younger age, thus leading to increasingly worse medical, physical and psychological health outcomes, higher maternal morbidity and mortality rates. Infants born to young mothers are often unhealthy, malnourished and face growth challenges. Sexual and reproductive health outcomes are rather worse due to limited education. Thus, the chances of contracting sexually transmitted infections and fertility issues are higher. These factors are enough to hinder pillars of child protection and rights. The Covid-19 pandemic worsens the outcomes of vulnerable young girls in such communities.

Child marriages pose a great risk to wellbeing of young children. In countries like India and Bangladesh, both girls and boys are culturally married at a younger age. Rising health promotion activities and education in communities is however bringing changes. Due to ongoing awareness campaigns in many low and middle-income countries, young children are challenging their communities to grow out of such practices, albeit rather slowly.

Source: United Nations Children’s Fund, Child Marriage: Latest trends and future prospects, UNICEF, New York, 2018

Sacrificing young children, particularly girls, to such harsh cultural traditions and in exchange for other short-term benefits only widens gender inequality and discrimination. Often, these child brides married to older men, face risks of ill treatment, slavery, rape and abuse. Exposing young adolescent girls to such norms is associated with rise in mental illnesses and suicides. However, child marriage is now illegal and thus illegal exchange of vows is a silent violation of human rights, child protection laws and a punishable offense. Yet it persists as a challenging global issue.

The idea of equality is to have the right to make personal decisions regarding education, marriage, finance, and overall wellbeing. However, it fails to be practical when it comes to the basic living rights of young girls and women affected by child marriage. The responsibility of elders is to negotiate their older customs and free children of the burden of a child marriage. Child marriage compromises growth and development of young girls, further limits and takes away the innocence of a normal childhood.

Ending child marriage will help break the intergenerational cycle of poverty by allowing girls and women to participate more fully in society. Empowered and educated girls are better able to nourish and care for their children, leading to healthier, smaller families. When girls are allowed to be girls, everybody wins.” – UNICEF 2014

 

Despite being a nuisance, decline in number of child brides shows a promising trend in eliminating child marriages sooner than expected. However, no region meets the guidelines set by the Sustainable Development Goal target of eliminating this harmful practice by 2030. According to UNICEF, ‘To end child marriage by 2030, progress must be 12 times faster than the progress of the last decade.’

The key here is to look at the issue with a multilevel perspective. At a micro system level, awareness of having rights is important and thus necessitates advocacy to promote education, human & gender rights. Rights to decision-making is important for a society to learn and grow in a progressive manner. Similarly, at a macro system level, an integrated approach by the government, religious leaders, policy makers and other prime stakeholders like non-profit organizations is necessary to put a stop to such harmful customs and practices, so as to protect children and women.

I realized that the barrier to girls’ education isn’t just resources. It’s also about attitudes and beliefs – the belief that girls simply aren’t worthy of an education; that women should have no role outside the home; that their bodies aren’t their own, their minds don’t really matter, and their voices simply shouldn’t be heard” – Former First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama

To find the first of this series about the clash between child rights and cultural beliefs, check here.

As we mark International Women’s day, we are clamoring for more attention to this terrible practice. Let girls be girls!

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Author: Harsha Kumari