UN warns about child marriages
Stabroek News
June 8, 2004

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Child marriage violates the human rights of "millions of girls by threatening their health, restricting their education and limiting their social, economic and political growth," the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) said recently. The statement followed a special session of the Global Health Council's annual conference in Washington DC on Friday among leaders of UNFPA, the Population Council, the government of Senegal and the International Centre for Research on Women to address the neglected issue of child marriage. The meeting was held under the theme 'Youth and Health: Generation on the Edge.'

According to the release, most nations have declared 18 as the legal minimum age for marriage; yet in the next decade, more than 100 million girls worldwide will marry before their 18th birthday. "Some will be as young as eight or nine and many will marry against their will."

Executive Director of UNFPA, Thoraya Ahmed Obaid was quoted as saying: "Married adolescents have been largely ignored in the development and health agenda because of the perception that their married status ensures them a safe passage to adulthood," a perception he says is far from the truth.

The release said that other panellists included Aminata Diallo, Minister of Health of Senegal; Geeta Rao Gupta, President of the International Centre for Research on Women; Judith Bruce, Director of Gender, Family and Development, Population Council, and Kakenya Ntaiya, a Kenyan woman who fought hard to delay marriage and continue her education.

Obaid called for greater action to discourage child marriage such as:

- Highlighting the increased risk of HIV infection for young girls who marry much older men especially in communities with high prevalence of HIV/AIDS.

- Fostering national and community dialogue over the human dignity and human rights of all persons, and the security and health threats in forced or early marriage of girls.

- Helping girls to complete their secondary education and working to address the root causes of early marriage, such as poverty and discrimination against girls.

- Designing safe, appropriate and effective educational skill-building, and livelihood opportunities for unmarried girls that may assist them in deferring marriage by raising their literacy, increasing their income-generation and overall economic and social well being.

It was noted that the child marriage remains a deeply entrenched custom in many countries as parents want to secure their daughters' futures both socially and financially, and ties between families and villages are often strengthened with arranged marriages.

"Pregnancy is a leading cause of death and disability for young women aged 15 to 19. Married adolescent girls are at particular risk of HIV infection since they are often married to much older men with more sexual experience and are generally unable to negotiate condom use," the release said. It added that studies from Kenya and Zambia show that teenage brides are contracting HIV at a faster rate then their sexually active unmarried counterparts. It stated that an estimated 7.3 million young women are living with the virus, compared to 4.5 million young men, and nearly two thirds of newly-infected youths aged 15 to 19 in sub-Saharan Africa are female.

UNFPA is the world's largest multilateral source of population assistance since it came into operation in 1969 and it has provided help to developing countries, at their request, to meet reproductive health needs and support development efforts.