Chakra Discussions

Childhood's End Comes Suddenly for Some

by Ananda das, Victoria, B.C.

Posted July 15, 2006

Photo: Ghulam Haider, 11, had to give up her dream of becoming a teacher and was instead forced to marry 40-year-old Faiz Mohammed. (Photo by Stephanie Sinclair, from New York Times)

A harrowing article in the New York TImes relates how Afghani families, driven by severe poverty, have forced girl children to marry at ages as young as 13 or even 11. The article, accompanied by haunting photographs, describes how an 11-year-old has been forced into polygamous marriage to a 55-year-old man who already has several children older than his pre-pubescent "bride."

Photo: Said Mohammed, 55, with his second "wife", 11-year-old Roshan Qasem. (Photo by Stephanie Sinclair, from New York Times)

Such "weddings" are manifestly illegal, according to the international Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage, and Registration of Marriages, which has had the force of international law since 1964, enforceable at the International Court of Justice at The Hague.

Although the child in the New York Times article appears to be enjoying herself in the photograph of the "wedding", a bit of thought will remind us that she is at the age where imaginary weddings are the stuff of childhood dreams and play. She does not deserve to have her childhood prematurely cut short by entering into involuntary servitude to a man five times her age. The wedding festivities may be enjoyable for her, but it is certain to be all downhill from there.

Meanwhile, countries like Niger tolerate marriages of girls as young as nine, while the nomadic Roma people contract for marriage at the age of seven, with the actual "marriage" being solemnized at 12. One such couple was recently separated by Romanian child welfare authorities.

Think back, if you will, to elementary school. Think of how little you knew of the ways of the world then. Now imagine what it must be like for these young girls, many of whom have, because of war and civil strife or because of a harsh regime of misogyny under the generally-hated Taliban zealots, been deprived even of the limited education a girl in Europe or North America might have been expected to enjoy by that age.

Most of these girls can be expected not even to know how to read and write. Yet they are bartered away for money, for a motor scooter or to settle a gambling debt. Who considers their hopes and dreams? How impoverished will be the Afghani society fifteen years hence, deprived of another generation of teachers, doctors and engineers -- women who could have made a real difference in modernizing a crumbling and corrupt country!

Because of the gross age disparity, such a child bride is likely to be widowed before she is 25. The social position of widows, particularly in India and the Muslim world, is one of intolerably reprehensible abuse, and forcing a young girl to marry such an old man will likely lead to misery for her, followed almost inevitably by poverty and alienation after his death.

Sexual relations between a child and a considerably older person are considered "statutory rape" in North America. In a court trial, the legal defence of the child's so-called consent will not be available to the adult; the child is not considered mature enough to have given informed consent; instead, the wide disparity in years create a prima facie situation of illegal exploitation. Putting a veneer of culturally accepted "marriage" on such practices does not make exploitive and abusive relationships acceptable to a thoughtful person; they are only marginally less repugnant than a 40-year-old Internet stalker luring a bored 13-year-old away from her parents' home for a brief rendezvous.

It was to put an end to horrors such as forced marriages of children that the United Nations developed the Convention on Consent to Marriage. Of the over 50 countries that have so far ratified the Convention, most have set the minimum age for marriage at 18, although some allow earlier marriage either with parental consent or with the consent of a court. A few Asian countries -- including China, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines and Japan -- have set the minimum age at 20 or older.

Two very practical reasons for delaying marriage are to allow a woman to get as much education as practicable, or at least enough to be able to support herself, so that she can maximize the development of her intellect and her resultant earning capacity, and to allow her to delay childbearing until she is in her early 20s, so that she can be as healthy as possible in pregnancy and childbirth, giving her children the best possible start in life.

David Agnew, the president of UNICEF Canada, declares that education is the single best way to reduce widespread poverty, AIDS and child exploitation. Although 180 countries have ratified the United Nations Education for All initiative and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimates that at least 70 million school-age girls are currently denied an education.

One highly beneficial consequence of delaying marriage and childbearing is that her higher level of education and reduced period of fertility will likely result in her having fewer children -- a real benefit both to her family and to a world rapidly approaching a peak population of 9 billion. (In Afghanistan, for example, the average woman gives birth to 6.75 children. This astounding rate is coupled with 1,700 women per 100,000 dying in childbirth. Both rates are among the highest in the world. By comparison, in Canada the average woman gives birth to 1.6 children and the maternal mortality ratio is less than 5 per 100,000 women. In Afghanistan the life expectancy for women is 43; in Canada it is 84.)

While some western countries may need to raise either the birth rate or the immigration rate to keep their population numbers stable, this is far from the case in Afghanistan, where a rapidly doubling population can only aggravate that country's already dire problems. One reason Afghani mothers tend to have such large families is that their poor education contributes to a high level of child mortality; a larger family increases the likelihood that at least a few children will survive to adulthood. Greater education levels lead to smaller family sizes through lower child and maternal mortality rates and longer life expectancies.

"Childbirth can mean a certain death for young girls and their babies," says Rita Karakas, of Save the Children Canada. In third world countries, pregnancy and childbirth complications are the leading causes for death of teenage girls. "Girls who receive an education are less likely to have babies at a young age. Even mothers with only a basic education have healthier pregnancies, safer deliveries and healthier babies because they are more likely to seek health care services for themselves and their children," Karakis adds.

Child marriages are a relic of a long-ago time and have no place in today's world, nor in any sort of agrarian utopia that might be envisioned by a varnashram-dharma advocate for an intentional religious community. Child marriage deserves to be relegated to the scrap-heap of history, along with inhumane and repellent practices such as slavery, child labour, caste by birth, apartheid, genital mutilation, feudalism and polygamy.

We may wish that marriage endure for a lifetime, and we may wish that our children find responsible, loving spouses who will be unfailingly kind and supportive, but between one-third and one-half of marriages end in divorce, and neither the officious meddling of an authority figure, an arrangement by parents and in-laws, nor the coincidental positions of the sun, moon and particular planets can guarantee the continuation of any marriage.

Despite progressive laws in most developed countries mandating an equal distribution of assets after divorce, women are almost always at a disadvantage in supporting themselves into the future because of pervasive social attitudes, including overt discrimination. How much worse their situation will be if they have grown up in a society where women -- far from owning property in their own right -- are often regarded as mere chattel of their in-laws or even driven away from their extended family's home, or if they have been prevented from completing the post-secondary education which is now a minimum requirement for the majority of jobs.

All parents should vow that they will never wish for nor tolerate the marriage of their children before at least the age of 18. They should further vow that they will strive to encourage their children to get as much university or trades education as possible, and urge their children to delay marriage until they have completed a post-secondary degree or a technical or vocational diploma, in order to facilitate self-sufficiency.