International Day of the African Child

When child marriage and maternal mortality are rights of passage.

Rights of passage that mark the end of childhood and beginning of adulthood are part of every culture. Some are based on religious traditions, like Bar or Bat Mitzvahs in Jewish communities or Confirmation in Catholic communities. In Hispanic communities, a Quinceanera party celebrates a young woman’s acceptance into adulthood and or many teens, getting a driver’s license signifies their maturity. In some cultures though, especially in developing countries like parts of sub-Saharan Africa, coming of age traditions for girls includes the end of education early marriage, forced sexual activity and motherhood.

One in seven girls in the developing world gets married before she turns 15. That’s about 37,000 child brides per day and unless this tradition is eliminated, there will be 142 million child marriages in developing countries between now and 2020. Girls from poor families are nearly twice as likely to marry before age 18 than wealthier girls. In fact, in many families, poverty forces parents to marry their daughters into other families to reduce the number of children they need to support. Sometimes, the “bride price” given to a young girl’s family is essential for that family’s survival. Too often, these girls are married against their will to men much older than they are. Once married, they almost always leave school to attend to their new responsibilities as wives. Regardless of their physical or emotional maturity or readiness for sexual activity, many become pregnant long before they’re developmentally ready.

Half of all first births in the developing world are to adolescent girls, who are at much greater risk for medical complications related to pregnancy and childbirth than adult women. In fact, one of the leading causes of death for girls between the ages of 15 and 19 is pregnancy and birth related. In addition, adolescent girls are at much higher risk for developing obstetric fistula, a debilitating birth injury that erodes the tissues between the vagina and rectum and/or bladder and leaves girls incontinent. If medical care to repair the fistula is unavailable, this birth injury can cause lifelong physical, psychological and social damage.

The children of young mothers run high risks for early death too. If a mother is under the age of 18, her infant’s risk of dying in its first year of life is 60 per cent greater than that of an infant born to a mother older than 19.

When girls receive at least seven years of education, however, they marry approximately four years later and have fewer children. If they stay in school during adolescence, they become sexually active at a later age, are less likely to be subjected to forced sex and are more likely to explore family planning options. They’re more eligible for employment opportunities and more capable of adding to their family’s income and economic wellbeing. Their children are more likely to be educated, well nourished and to receive health care, which improves their chances for a healthier life and more prosperous future.

As more cultures recognize the connections between child marriage, maternal mortality and intractable poverty, more are taking steps to eradicate this traumatizing and dangerous tradition. In some countries that means enforcing laws already on the books. In others, it means creating new laws to protect children as well as educational and economic opportunities specifically for girls. And in some cultures, it means leaving certain traditional rights of passage to history in order to create healthier, happier futures for girls.

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