This is a paper I wrote during my time at Spelman College.
In history, looking specifically at women, girls have been marrying and having children young. It is important to note that throughout society, marriage and sex go hand-in-hand. However, times have changed. There was a reason why people were married young and having children too. Women had no real rights or say so. They were to be seen and not heard. In addition, people died at younger ages. Girls were seen as adults by thirteen and being married off to men who could support them and begin a family of their own. In impoverished countries, girls were married off young in order to help with family finances. Large families were made so the children could help work for the house and once they got to a certain age, they would marry off and make room within the household. Today, early marriage and childbearing is discouraged in almost every country.
Prior to the 1900s, it was common for girls to marry young (Discover the Truth). During the Medieval time period, many women were married as young as the age of seven; however, the consummation of a marriage generally occurred when the girl hit puberty (Discover the Truth). Young marriages during this time period were mostly common among heiresses because marriages were typically political (“Marriage”). The idea of a political marriage, made it okay for young girls to be married off, so that alliances could be made and more power could be consumed. The idea of love was absurd unless it happened during the marriage, yet most girls who married young during this time, wound up widowed in their teen years (Discover the Truth).
Climbing up the periodic latter to more modern ages, within the United States of America, laws were passed in order to protect the innocence of young girls. A woman’s virginity was considered valuable and to be saved for her husband (Discover the Truth). Since, in most cases, women hit puberty around the age of ten and twelve, a law was passed that women younger than ten could not marry. However, today, the United States’ laws dictate marriages legal at the age of eighteen and in some states, earlier marriages are condoned if a parent or legal guardian permits. The legal age to have sex varies state to state, and from prior knowledge, the youngest legal age to have sex is fifteen in some states. Yet, this essay not only discusses the legality of underage marriage and sex, but more so the aspects of why. The history stems from medieval doctrines that accommodated the aristocracy is maintaining power. Thus leading to similar beliefs in other European colonized nations, with puberty defining “womanhood” or “adulthood.” Factors such as: “poverty, cultural norms, and the low societal value of women and girls are the primary forces that fuel early marriage” (Council on Foreign Relations).
Economics and the low societal value for women and girls are in some ways connected. In communities where women are not “allowed” to work, “families often view their daughters as an economic burden” (Council on Foreign Relations). In order to avoid educational costs, if education is available to women, the parents may betroth her, and essentially ease the financial load of caring for a child. A greater incentive to marry off daughters sooner, is when education is not available for women, because they are then officially useless with financial support within the household. In other circumstances, children are married off young in order to erase a debt or settle a feud (Council on Foreign Relations). This notion is true when looking at Mapendo Simbeye of Chikutu, Malawi. Mapendo stuggled with his crops and was unable to harvest any, making it hard to feed his wife and five children. In order to do so, Mapendo approached his neighbor, Anderson Kalabo, for a loan. Kalabo gave Mapendo the loan, and he was able to feed his family. However, already impoverished, Mapendo was not certain as to how he would repay Kalabo. A deeply ingrained custom within sub-Saharan African’s rural patriarchies, is the marrying off of children to repay debts. Mapendo sent his eleven year old daughter, Mwaka, to become a servant to Kalabo’s first wife and his “bed partner” – essentially his second wife (Lafraniere). While debts are one factor under economics, so are dowries and bride prices. Younger girls were worth more because they had more time to dedicate to the family. Dowries are money given to the groom’s family as an incentive for caring for their daughter. Bride prices are money given to the bride’s family. In such cases, bride prices are generally at an all-time high for earlier ages. Dowries are often lowered if the bride is young. Dowries is often practiced in India, while bride prices is common in sub-Saharan Africa. None the less, poverty and economics is one reason as to why marriage at an earlier age is still practiced (Council on Foreign Relations).
Cultural norms that play in earlier marriages include cultural traditions and religion. In many cultures, a strong emphasis is placed on a women’s virginity, which is commonly associated with family honor. As a result, parents may seek to marry off their daughters young in order to ensure she is married as a virgin and, maybe more importantly, to prevent her from having children out-of-wedlock. This practice is common in Northeast African and parts of the Middle East. In these locations, “child marriage frequently occurs shortly after female genitalia cutting, a practice that is often justified as promoting virginity and deterring sexual assault” (Council of Foreign Relations). Deeply devoted people of certain religions and sects, support the idea of early marriage. In Ethiopia, child marriage, at one point, was part of the customs of the Orthodox Christian communities. However, today, most of the country’s Orthodox churches, excluding those mainly in the Amhara region, oppose this practice. Within the Muslim tradition, the notion of early marriage, is permitted after a child his puberty, signifying her maturity:
Some Muslims who follow a conservative interpretation of sharia argue that Islam permits child marriage as the Quran specifies that girls can be married upon reaching maturity, which conservative scholars define as puberty (Council of Foreign Relations).
Keep in mind that not all people within the Muslim faith practice or agree to the idea of early marriage. Cultural traditions and religious faith, nevertheless, affect the percentages of underage marriages.
|Minimum Legal Age for Marriage in the Middle East and North Africa|
|Child Marriage Around the World: Percentage of Girls Marrying Before the Age of 18|
|Central African Republic||57.0|
Technology and evolution and scientific facts, essentially changed the attitudes of many people on their perception of early marriage and pregnancy. A study done on early marriages showed that their several negative factors involving children getting married: “Child brides are more likely than unmarried girls to die younger, suffer from health problems, live in poverty and remain illiterate” (JumpStart Productions). For one, child brides have a higher chance of conceiving children before they are emotionally or physically prepared. Bearing children before a girl is ready, can lead to maternal mortality. Nationwide, deaths correlating to pregnancy, are the leading causes of mortality for girls between the ages of fifteen and nineteen. Girls younger than the age of fifteen, are five times more likely to die as a result of child birth or some other pregnancy related illness, than earlier older woman. This alludes to infant mortality. Babies born to young mothers, typically mothers under the age of twenty, have a seventy-five percent higher mortality rate than those born to older mothers. For children that do survive past child birth, are more likely to be born prematurely, have low birth weights, and are more at risk for contracting HIV/AIDS. The list goes on and on, to premature births causing mothers to contract fistula and thus being abandoned by her husband and ostracized by society, to contracting some form of STD since young girls are more susceptible to diseases than older, to being illiterate as a result of not being able to complete school, to remaining living in poverty, to being abused – more so domestically leading to other side effects (JumpStart Productions).
After analyzing the outstanding complications that are linked to children, mainly young girls, being married young, it is no wonder why most nations want to educate their citizens on waiting to be married and more importantly, waiting to have sex and have children. In South Africa, there is much emphasis on educating young girls on practicing safe sex and waiting to conceive children. The consequences in which researchers found to be known in South Africa, ranged from health, educational, economic, and social. The consequences of child bearing associated with health risks include: an increased risk of maternal death, an increased risk of obstetrics complications, babies being born with low birth weights, and a high risk of infant mortality. For the most part, death seems to be the leading risk as far as health concerns go for young girls having children young. Educational consequences that were discovered comprise of: young girls becoming school dropouts, having an increased school absentee rate, having a poor academic performance, having a lower educational attainment, having poorer cognitive development in their children, and having poorer educational outcomes for their children. Education, which in today’s society is highly valued, becomes less likely for girls who bear children young. This is due to having to care for the child and if they are impoverished, they can’t afford to remain in school and raise a child all at the same time. Thus, segueing to the economic consequences associated with early childbearing. These consequences are not limited to: a lower family income, an increased ratio dependency, an exacerbated poverty, and the children born to these young mothers are most likely to also be poor. For countries who strive to have fewer numbers of their population living in impoverished communities, early childbearing is becoming more and more discouraged. The way the government and the societies view early pregnancy, link to the overall societal consequences. Young girls who have children young are judged with a stigma and often discriminated against, they are less likely to be married, they are most likely going to suffer from some form of abuse, they are less likely to create a supportive and stimulating home environment for their children, they are more likely to have children with increased behavioral problems, they have higher rates of imprisonment among their sons, and their children are more likely to repeat this cycle of bearing children young having children in their teens (Panday 47). These social attitudes and statistics about early childbearing are minimal compared to the other three consequences. Death, poor education, and poverty, alone, should be an incentive for parents of children and for teens, themselves, to refrain from bearing children at early ages. Yet, maybe there is more to it than just educating the youth on these dangers.
In United States, although teen pregnancy is still problematic, it is at its lowest rate in nearly forty years (Planned Parenthood). Living in America one is able to witness the societal stigma placed on teen pregnancy; however, confusion may factor into the still high rate of teen pregnancy. Despite the known prejudice attitude placed on teen pregnancy by society, in some ways, the media contradicts this stigma. Shows that document teen pregnancy, such as Teen Mom and 16 & Pregnant, glorify teen pregnancy. While they shows teens experiencing their pregnancies and the hardships that come with being a teen mom, to viewers these girls are being paid and are on television. From conversing about teen pregnancy, talk of girls saying “If I get pregnant I’ll just go on 16 & Pregnant” was common. But these shows are not the only ones that glorify teen pregnancy. Reality television dramas that have teen pregnancies, such as The Secret Life of the American Teenager, also glorified teen pregnancy, maybe even more than documentary-dramas. The idea of having a baby young becomes idolized because of the idea of being a “MILF” or “cool,” yet these girls are uneducated in the hardships that go along with raising an infant and toddler.
Prior to research, an ignorant assumption was made in retrospect to America and other countries. America was known, from experience, the attitude in which society felt about teen pregnancy and the notion of getting married young. However, based on the portrayal of third-world countries, it was assumed that in impoverished nations, like that of some of the countries found in Africa, encouraged teen pregnancy and early marriage as a way to make the financial burden on a family easier. This assumption, as seen through evidence discussed early on is not all the way incorrect.
In history was clear that girls were considered women, after they reached puberty. In addition, during the medieval time period, heiresses were married off in order to maintain political wealth and power. This doctrine carried over to colonies that had been colonized by these European nations. However, as time progressed, so did the idea of early child marriage and pregnancy. Laws were passed in order to protect the innocence of young girls and to protect the lives that these young girls faced if they married and/or had children young. Although in the United States women are getting married later, teen pregnancy is still problematic; however, other nations are still behind in both of these aspects. As discussed, today economic suffrage, a low value for women in society, and cultural traditions, including religion, are the reasons why in some countries the practice of early marriage is continued. But not all people believe in such a practice, nor use this practice, despite whether or not they are permitted to. With new information about the health, educational, economical, and societal consequences being educated to people, people are more opposed to the practice of early marriage and discouraging their daughters from conceiving children at young ages. Hence, the birth of a new understanding of a united front on the negative effects of early pregnancy and marriage leading to a global encouragement of prolonging teen marriages and pregnancies.