Meet ‘cultural norm’, he kills girls: The tragedy of child brides

The UN expresses concern about maternal mortality among children, but few member states are willing to confront the issue

Share
Related Topics

This week a court in Birmingham heard the case of a 14-year-old girl who became pregnant after she was taken to Pakistan against her will and forced to marry a 24-year-old man.

A shocking case to learn the details of, such incidents are, regretfully, not a rarity. Each year across the globe two million girls aged 14 and younger become mothers. They do so mostly because they live in societies that regard them as little more than property.

The World Health Organization estimates that girls giving birth aged less than 15 are five times as likely to die. Pregnancy is the leading cause of death for girls between the ages of 15 and 19 in low and middle income countries.

The UN expresses concern about maternal mortality among children, but many of its member states will not confront the so-called cultural norms that perpetuate poverty, suffering and ignorance in the developing world. They defend dangerous traditions harmful to girls and women because they argue they are central to their culture. What is more, some Western academics and NGOs avoid challenging these traditions because they want to appear respectful of diversity. They forget that the Atlantic slave trade was our custom. Regarding disabled people as cursed by God was our tradition. Allowing a woman’s inheritance to go to her husband was our natural order of things until comparatively recently.

In many parts of rural Africa, India and Pakistan a child bride cannot attend school and is inevitably trapped in the cycle of poverty, being ill-equipped for motherhood, probably illiterate and therefore unaware of any rights she might theoretically have under her nation’s laws. She will likely be ignorant about health and nutrition, lacking in confidence to ask her husband to use contraceptives, and by 25 she will be worn out. Research confirms that her children -  those who survive childhood - are unlikely to break out of this cycle of poverty and ignorance.

In rural India, Pakistan and much of Afghanistan a girl knows her parents will not stay in touch with her after marriage because custom says only their sons will take care of them in old age. Ownership of the girl passes to her husband’s family, meaning she has nowhere to go if they are violent. She is isolated among people who expect her to work like a slave because they have paid a bride price for her, or taken her in payment for her father’s debt. In many places the younger the girl is, the more money or goods her parents can get for her.

In rural areas of Africa, Turkey, Chechnya and Kyrgyzstan bride kidnapping is common. But this is not eloping, Romeo and Juliet-style. Men will kidnap and rape a girl to avoid paying a bride price. Rather than eliciting sympathy from her parents, tradition says the girl has shamed her family. She is worthless because she is no longer a virgin, so must stay with her rapist.

However, there are groups of local people across the developing world risking death to offer girls and women choices such as access to education, legal protection and family planning. They argue that universal human rights apply everywhere, in the poorest, most remote village, and those rights outweigh cultural norms benefiting only men in the society.

In Rwanda, where an enlightened constitution is backed up by enforcement, and where the majority of legislators are women, the rate of pregnancy among girls under the age of 15 is 0.3 per cent (compared to 12 per cent in Mozambique). At the Aspire project in Kigali, a group of female lawyers run training sessions, telling women how to access their legal rights. Meanwhile members of a male NGO, RWAMREC, talk to the women’s male partners, explaining that positive masculinity means an end to domestic violence and rape. Aspire’s programme of female empowerment is holistic, linking literacy with the ability to be economically independent, and offering childcare so older daughters are not kept home from school to care for siblings while their mothers study.

If the UN, regional bodies like the African Union, and aid agencies are serious about fighting poverty, they must stop kowtowing to cultural norms in the name of respect for diversity. The poorest countries in the world (Niger, Chad, Guinea, the Central African Republic, Mali) are also those with the highest incidence of child marriage. Girls who are allowed to go to school marry later, have healthier families, and produce children more likely to escape the cycle of poverty. As the UN assesses the Millennium Development Goals beyond 2015, it must finally recognise and condemn the damage done by child marriage and pregnancy.

Rebecca Tinsley founded the charity Network for Africa which supports survivors of genocide and conflict as they rebuild their lives.

React Now

More From
Rebecca Tinsley
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows, Network Security)

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows...

Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Directory, ITIL, Reuter)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Dire...

PHP Web Developer (HTML5, CSS3, Jenkins, Vagrant, MySQL)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: PHP Web Develo...

Network Engineer (CCNA, CCNP, Linux, OSPF, BGP, Multicast, WAN)

£40000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNA, CCNP, Linux, OSPF,...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: The final instalment of our WW1 series

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
 

Simon Usborne: The more you watch pro cycling, the more you understand its social complexity

Simon Usborne
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice