Adirenne Germain is President of the International Women's Health Coalition.
When you think of a 12-year-old girl, you probably picture a child…not a wife and mother. In the United States recently, we have learned that child marriage still occurs from time to time and needs to be confronted. For example, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled that a 15-year-old girl is old enough to be the comm
on-law wife of a man more than twice her age (this ruling also created the possibility of girls as young as 12 becoming common-law wives). Here in the United States, this problem is an anomaly. In much of the developing world, however, it is commonplace—a major threat to the lives and well-being of tens of millions of girls.
Estimates are that in the next 10 years over 100 million girls will be married before the age of 18. Some of these girls will be no older than 7 years of age, and all will be forced into sex at puberty – making them more vulnerable to HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, injuries and death in child bearing, and violence and discrimination. This gross human rights violation must be addressed with exigency and efficiency, or countless young girls’ lives will be inalterably undermined.
Let’s look more closely at what happens when parents of a girl of only 10 or 14 marry her off to a man who is two or three times her own age, without her consent and usually without any understanding of what is in store. Even if he is only five or 10 years older he has most certainly already been sexually active and is likely to have additional partners while married. It is unlikely that the girl knows anything about sexuality or protecting her health on her wedding night. As a wife, she will have to submit to unprotected sex on demand from a husband who often is violent and/or drunk. Even if she knows about condoms, which is unlikely, she dare not ask her husband to use one because she is expected to bear a child (preferably a son) as soon as possible or she fears, justifiably, that he will beat her. The result: she is more likely to become infected with HIV than a sexually active girl who is not married.
It is not only the increased risk of HIV infection that makes child marriage harmful. When a young girl is married she then is denied access to education, health care services and economic opportunities. The cultural norms that encourage early marriage are the same norms that require social isolation after marriage.
International agreements and national laws against this practice state that people should only marry when both spouses consent and generally require a minimum age for marriage. But, these are rarely honored.
On Thursday, Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Chuck Hagel (R-NE) brought before their colleagues a common sense and practical strategy for combating child marriage. The International Child Marriage Prevention and Protection Act would promote community-based efforts to reduce child marriage, and also provide critical health, education and economic opportunities to girls who already are married. If enacted – and implemented – this policy would make real strides toward changing cultural practices and help ensure that the fundamental human rights of girls are protected.