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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, February 26, 2024

Looking for Life, Destroying Life: When a nine-year-old gets pregnant

Content warning: This article discusses child sexual abuse.

“I told my grandmother that I want to study and marry after turning 18. My grandmother said no, and also that marrying would be good for my health … my family is hell-bent on chasing me away from the house … they abuse and curse me every day,” Priyanka, a 15-year-old Indian girl, said to VICE Asia. Her marriage was arranged to a 25-year-old man.Over a quarter of underage girls in India are married. In some communities, that number doubles.

Marriage before the age of 18 is a human rights violation. In some countries, the practice is illegal. But in remote villages, accountability and law enforcement disappear.

In the U.S., sex with a minor is considered statutory rape. Internationally, it’s a norm. There are endless reasons why this practice is inhumane. The first is that victims of child marriage have no autonomy to give consent. When asked if girls know what to expect when consummating the marriage, a woman in a village said in National Geographic, “The girls do not know ... The men know, and they force them.”

Poverty, culture, limited health care infrastructure and lack of education perpetuate child marriage. India sees women as having an opportunity for upward mobility by marrying into a wealthier caste or family. In this situation, child marriage can actually give a family income. Additionally, marrying off a daughter reduces 'economic burden.'

When girls are married, they are expected to have children.Childbearing for a girl as young as 13 or 14, and sometimes even eight or nine years old, has serious physical implications such as obstetric fistula (OF). OF is a hole between the vagina and the rectum that forms due to pressure from the baby’s head during labor. When children give birth, their bodies are not yet fully developed, making them incredibly more susceptible to OF.

OF is a tragedy for young girls. It is often permanent because areas endemic with child marriage do not have proper healthcare infrastructure. Women experience incontinence and leak fecal matter; they essentially lose control over their bodily excretions. When this happens, they are socially ostracized. They smell of feces, and this can even ruin their marriage, often causing the man to leave the girl and children behind. The emotional ramifications are lifelong. Child marriage accounts for almost a quarter of OF cases worldwide.

But this issue is far more complicated than just 'stopping it.' The practice is perpetuated because unwed women are more likely to be raped.When a girl experiences sexual violence, they are deemed as 'undesirable' and relinquish their 'marriageability.' In some ways, child marriage decreases a girl’s susceptibility to assault.

Child marriage is a complicated issue to tackle. In order to eradicate it, we need to focus attention on educating women about their bodies and rights. And even more importantly, we need to eradicate poverty. Currently, one of the World Health Organization’s Sustainable Development Goals is to end child marriage by 2030. While progress is certainly underway, it’s not happening fast enough.