South Asia accounts for almost half of global child marriages, in which an underage girl is married to a man, who is usually much older than she is. The legal age for females to marry in most South Asian countries is 18, or 16 in Afghanistan; however, underage marriage remains common. According to UNICEF, while Niger has the highest overall prevalence of child marriage, Bangladesh has the highest rate of child brides who are under the age of 15. Bangladesh is also ranked second globally in terms of the rate of child marriages, where 74 percent of women currently aged 20-49 were married before they turned 18. The figures in India and Nepal also top 50 percent, placing them among the top 10 countries in the world in terms of child brides.
After a girl is sold as a bride, she is sent to live in her husband’s home and is expected to perform her “wifely” duties; such as cooking, cleaning, and bearing children. However, this can be a serious health hazard. Just last year, there was international outrage over the death of an eight year-old Yemini child bride, who died on her wedding night due to internal bleeding after the 40-year-old man she married forced himself on her.
One of the main factors driving child marriage is poverty. In communities where the bride’s family must pay a dowry to the groom, marrying a daughter before she reaches adulthood reduces the size of the dowry. This is because some cultures believe that the girl’s attractiveness will decrease with age. Another reason is the fear that a girl might engage in premarital sex, which would then lower her “value.” According to the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), in the four countries where more than half of the girls are married before 18, which includes Bangladesh, more than 75 percent of people live on less than $2 a day.
Marrying at a young age will most likely mean an end to education for most girls. This means that they will not be able to obtain the skills and knowledge needed to generate an income while caring for their children. A UNICEF study of out-of-school children found that there is a gender gap, where girls are more likely to be excluded from school than boys. For Bangladesh, reports have shown that boys are more excluded from education than girls. However, girls are more likely to drop out during their lower-secondary grades than boys, which may be an indicator of early wedlock. Girls who do complete secondary school are six times less likely to become child brides.
Emphasizing universal education could be key to further eliminating child marriages. Skillsets are needed to earn an income and break the cycle of poverty, along with educating children about the risks associated with marriage and early pregnancy before their bodies are fully developed. Education could also empower girls to claim their rights in society.
However, improving education in South Asia is easier said than done. With growing populations, the region has the largest number of school-age children in the world, with a range of socioeconomic and linguistic backgrounds, as well as areas of conflict. All of which makes establishing an effective learning environment a serious challenge.
The practice of child marriage has been slowly declining in South Asia, especially for girls under the age of 15. Given rapid population growth, however, the process will need to be accelerated if it is to reduce the absolute number of child brides. Traditional gender disparities combined with extreme poverty are the underlying reasons for the problem, but an aggressive approach to improving education and learning opportunities could be critical in overcoming it.