In developing countries, around sixty-five million women aged twenty to twenty-four were married before the age of eighteen, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund. Thirty million of these women live in South Asia. UNICEF officials say that in countries like Bangladesh and Nepal, more than half of married women were married before their eighteenth birthday.
UNICEF’s “Photo of 2007” shows a forty-year-old Afghan man named Mohammad sitting next to his new bride, eleven-year-old Ghulam. The reason for the marriage? Said Ghulam’s parents: “We needed the money.” According to a UNICEF fact sheet on child marriage, “parents choose to marry off their daughters early for a number of reasons. Poor families may regard a young girl as an economic burden and her marriage as a necessary survival strategy for her family.”
The physical and emotional damage caused by forced child marriage can be deadly. Torpekay, an Afghan girl from Herat province, was married at thirteen. She told Radio Free Afghanistan that despair over her marriage and the treatment she received from her in-laws drove her to attempt suicide. “I decided to set myself on fire,” she said.
Minnesota Congresswoman Betty McCollum has introduced legislation to expand U.S. efforts to promote an end to child marriage. She says child marriage is a human rights abuse:
“It’s forcible rape. It’s an issue for the young girls for their health. Women will tell you that rape is a violent act. Can you imagine being a young girl, ten, eleven, twelve, being forcibly raped? This puts that young person at great risk for a host variety of health problems, both physical and mental.”
“There are problems throughout the world on this,” said Congresswoman McCollum. “And this isn’t just about one faith group either,” she said.
Masuda Jalal, Afghanistan’s Minister for Women’s Affairs, says although it is contrary to Afghanistan’s constitution, “we still have all sorts of violence going on against women and girls – the forced marriages, the domestic violence, the early marriages, child marriage” and the settling of disputes by forced marriage.
Patricia Brister, U.S. Representative to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, said that child marriage poses serious risks to young girls, including death in childbirth. The U.S. urges other nations to join efforts to end child marriage, a human rights abuse no girl should have to suffer.