Adolescent Marriage: Crossroad or Status Quo?

By Rand Jarallah

It wasn't an option," murmured a thirty-two-year-old woman with a troubled face who wished to remain anonymous. I felt her emotions so strongly that I wished I had a chance to change her life. "I was the oldest girl among my sisters," she said, "my aunt came to my father wanting his consent for my marriage to her oldest son. My dad could not let her down -- his politeness resulted in my melancholy." She was married at sixteen. Deep down, I knew she wasn't the only one. Somewhere out there, even in my country, adolescent females suffer from similar situations.
As I left the woman's house, her situation hit me. I was furious and couldn't let go. I wanted to do something for her. What if I suffered like one of them? What if it was my sister, my cousin, or even my future daughter?
Adolescent marriage is a critical dilemma facing some societies today. It deprives girls of their rights, subjects them to abuse, and forces them to assume responsibilities beyond their years. Adolescent marriage strips them of their chances and rights to an education, a healthy lifestyle, personal development and growth. A vicious cycle results which can lead to their being widowed at a young age and shunned from society.
Some girls in South Asian societies are forced to marry, engage in sexual relations -- with or without their consent -- and raise children. This custom must be changed or even put to an end. As the United Nations Children's Fund publication Early Marriage Child Spouses states, the marriage of adolescent girls results in "the denial of childhood and adolescence, the curtailment of personal freedom and the lack of opportunity to develop a full sense of selfhood as well as the denial of psychosocial and emotional well-being, reproductive health and educational opportunity."1
A significant disadvantage faced by girls subject to adolescent marriage is the obstruction of education and personal development. This is a direct consequence, given that during the period of their lives when they would normally be experiencing childhood, they are instead preparing for adulthood and their contribution to their future families. Furthermore, young girls who would like to pursue both options -- building a family and continuing their education -- will be "both practically and legally excluded from doing so," if they are already married by adolescence.1 Young girls are routinely withdrawn from school if an offer of a good marriage alliance is made. Moreover, under these circumstances, parents believe that their investments in their daughters are ultimately wasted since, once they are married, they are expected to work in a different household. Additionally, parents fear that if their daughters are exposed to school, they will be at an increased risk of premarital sex and potential pregnancies. Girls are, therefore, kept out of school.
An important fallout to tackle is the psychosocial disadvantages of early marriage when the adolescent girl is forced to engage in sexual relations while being denied her freedom and right to personal development. This leads her to intense psychosocial and emotional distress. In Ethiopia, Inter-African Committee researchers found that elders lacked interest in their young girls' suffering and believed that the traumas of premature sex and childbearing were an "unavoidable part of life."2 Further research on young married girls in some parts of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh states in India showed that if the husband died before consummation, the young girl was considered a widow and became the property of all the men in the family. If she resisted their sexual advances, she would be cast out by the family with no source of income and left powerless. How do these practices give a girl the rights she deserves? When a very young woman between the ages of twelve and eighteen marries a much older man, she is disempowered while her husband is empowered.
Moreover, the adolescent girl's reproductive and general health is at risk because early pregnancy increases her risk of dying from premature labour or other complications during childbirth. For women aged fifteen to nineteen, there is a greater chance of dying during pregnancy than for women aged twenty to twenty-four.1 With regard to maternal mortality, a study conducted in Zaria, Nigeria, found the rate among girls aged below sixteen to be six times higher than that for women aged twenty to twenty-four.1
Families have always been the core of Arabian cultures. Marriage could be considered a legal, cultural, social, and religious channel into an acceptable sexual relationship. Early marriage is widespread in Oman, Yemen, Egypt, and in the Palestinian territory of the Gaza Strip. To cite some statistics, 17 per cent of women aged fifteen to nineteen are married in Oman and Yemen; 10 per cent of women aged fifteen to nineteen are married in Egypt; and 14 per cent of women aged fifteen to nineteen are married in Palestine.3 Why do they get married so early? Virginity and family honour are recognized as essential in these cultures; therefore, parents marry off their daughters at a younger age, preferably under twenty. In Palestine, for instance, some women are forced to marry at an early age for financial reasons because of the "ongoing political situation accompanied with unemployment and poverty."4 Additionally, early marriage could be the result of a poor upbringing, which results in uneducated parents with little knowledge of the disasters of adolescent marriage. If we could improve the situation, what would we do?
"Be the change you want to see in the world," said Mahatma Gandhi. Taking action by empowering women could be a starting point and, in any case, educating parents about adolescent marriage and its overall disadvantages could lead to better decision making. It is crucial to illustrate and explain to parents and adolescents how education could be a vital factor in leading a safe and healthy life. Of particular importance is comprehensive sex education, which includes teaching adolescents about their physiology, contraceptive use, and the risks such as childbirth complications and child and maternal mortality.

Notes 1 UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, "Early Marriage Child Spouses," Innocenti Digest, No. 7, March 2001. 2 T. Berhane-Selassie, Early Marriage in Ethiopia, Report to the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (Addis Ababa, 1993). 3 H. Rashad, M. Osman, and E. Roudi-Fahimi, Marriage in the Arab World (Washington, DC, Population Reference Bureau, 2005). 4 Y. Jarallah, Marriage Patterns in Palestine (PRB, 2008).