Children Having Children: 10 Million Child Brides Each Year

The February 2012 issue of The Reporter – the tri-annual magazine of Population Connection – focuses on this global issue. The only solution, apparently, is sexual and family planning education. And that means money to pay for these programs flowing from “have” to the “have not” nations. As we have discussed many times, the greatest threat to human sustainability is humans – too many of us. And there is no greater fecundity than in the poorest countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, which includes countries like Nepal and India. It is remarkable to us that thelatter, the nation with the world’s largest middle class, also has rampant child marriages among its poorest citizens.

Nujood Ali
Nujood Ali, a 10-year-old Yemeni bride who was able to attain a divorce. Photo courtesy Factoidz

The first step in this education program is to teach couples why and how to limit their family size. Next is the abolition of child marriage. The term is not used loosely. Girls as young as eight are married off by parents who cannot afford to keep them. If you would like to see photographs of what we are talking about, go to http://www.populationconnection.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=8825. You might just be amazed.

Here are some startling facts and statistics, according to Population Connection. In Bangladesh the median age for girls to marry is 15, and 80 percent of girls meet their husbands for the first time at their weddings.

While imams in the African country of Senegal perform outreach work in family planning, 90 percent of Senagal’s adults believe that only God is the arbiter of how many children a family should have. This belief makes it difficult to persuade  families to limit the number of children they will need to support, leading to a willingness to slough off their young daughters to marriage.

UNICEF reports that in impoverished regions, “a young girl may be regarded as an economic burden and her marriage . . . is a familial survival strategy.”

The dangers of pregnancy among newly fertile girls are dramatic. According to UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, girls aged 15-19 are twice as likely to die during pregnancy as are women aged 20-24.

In addition, a less-than-mature body is subject to developing a fistula during childbirth. Very young women often have prolonged labors. The fetus exerts pressure on the mother’s pelvis for extended periods with the risk of damaging soft tissues. Some of those tissues are likely to die, leaving a hole, or fistula. Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines a fistula as “an abnormal passage that leads from an abscess or hollow organ or part to the body surface or from one hollow organ or part to another.” Depending on the location of the hole, the woman may suffer from involuntary urination or excretion. Add to that the dangers of infection.

About two million females, mostly in Africa, suffer with fistulas.

In Niger, 75 percent of females marry before the age of 18.

Anna Tomasulo, writing in The Reporter, relates that, “Fistula exists in Nepal, but a more common problem seems to be uterine prolapse, which is when the uterus descends through the genitals. UNFPA reports 600,000 women in Nepal affected by uterine prolapse . . . Some effects of uterine prolapse include pain during urination, difficulties during sexual intercourse and social stigmatization.”

We won’t go on with these terrible statistics and anecdotes. The question is, what can we Americans, along with the wealthier international community do about it? Plenty.

As Population Connection President Jon Seager puts it, “If a man in the U.S. tried to marry an eleven-year-old girl, he’d be arrested. Rightly so and good riddance.” But efforts to provide universal access to affordable family planning , which would deter child marriages, runs into all sorts of obstacles. Some come from tribal leaders in remote villages. Then there is opposition to birth control from the Catholic Church. (Chapter 2 of our book, Enough of Us – which is currently available as an ebook on most vendor sites – deals with religion and family planning.) “Still others are members of Congress whose suits come from Brooks Bothers but who are straight out of the 12th century,” says Seager. It’s hard to believe we still face such implacable forces.”

The Reporter points out that, according to demographer Jon Bongaarts, if the average age of childbearing increased by five years, future population size could be reduced by more than 15 percent. And South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu puts it: No woman who has had the benefit of staying at school and marrying later in life can inflict child marriage on her daughters.”

It is up to mindful nations to provide funding and assistance, both through governmental efforts and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), to reach out to developing countries. Events like the International Conference on Family Planning – which convened three months ago in Dakar, Senegal – provide forums for NGOs like the World Health Organization, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID),  UNFPA, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, International Planned Parenthood Foundation, the World Bank and hundreds of other agencies and individuals to set about planning to eliminate the scourge of child marriages, among other family planning efforts.

At the conference, The Gates Foundation committed $70 million annually for family planning. The British government committed $55 million. Population Connection is currently fighting efforts by the House leadership to cut international family planning while urging the Senate and White House to increase annual funding to one billion dollars from its current $610 million.

Most of the increase in world overpopulation will come from developing countries. What can you do about it? Let your representatives in Congress know how you feel and why. It only takes a short email or phone call.

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