Child Marriage Declines in South Asia: Education and Human Development May Lead to Fewer Child Brides

Article excerpt

In impoverished communities across the developing world, many families arrange to marry off their underage daughters to older male suitors--usually without the daughters' consent or even their knowing in advance. Those girls are then pulled out of school and taken from their homes and childhood friends to be forced into new lives of childbearing and domestic servitude.

Child marriages have long been commonplace, particularly in South Asia. But a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicates that this region is finally succeeding in making the practice less common.

From 1991 to 2007, marriage rates for girls under 14 declined by 45% in Bangladesh, 34% in India, 56.5% in Nepal, and 61% in Pakistan, according to the study led by Anita Raj, professor of medicine at the University of California-San Diego. Raj and her team attribute some of Bangladesh and Nepal's declining rates to increased promotion of childhood education over the last decade. The reasons behind similar declines in child marriages in India and Pakistan are less clear, however.

"In Bangladesh, in particular, they have created notable and dramatic improvements in education of girls," says Raj. "The norms have changed. There is improved education of girls; there is improved economic opportunity"

The declines did not extend to girls in their mid-teens, however. Marriage rates of girls ages 16-17 declined slightly in Nepal but stayed the same in India and Pakistan and increased by 36% in Bangladesh.

Raj notes that young people in the region graduate from secondary school in their mid-teens, and that this may be a factor. She points out that, as numerous studies have indicated, girls who do not receive education are more vulnerable to early marriage. Furthermore, a lack of career opportunities may induce the region's teenage girls and their families to see little incentive for the girls to pursue college.

"Improved education may be affecting some of the youngest girls, but once they reach 16 or 17, we stop seeing the effect," she says. "If we provide education but little opportunity for girls to use the education, there may be less incentive for older adolescent girls and their families to want to delay marriage."

Still, the region's lower rates overall of child marriage may hold big dividends for public health. The World Health Organization's data indicates that, from 2000 to 2008, maternal mortality rates in Bangladesh fell 32%, and the death rates for infants (younger than 1 year old) fell by 38%.

Raj says that these improved health indicators may be, at least in part, a direct result of fewer women giving birth while in their teens--teen mothers are more likely to suffer health complications than women who give birth in their 20s or early 30s. …