By Naghmeh Mizanian

Child brides, sufferers of the lost childhood

January 9, 2018

TEHRAN – Katayoon was playing with other girl children at the yard when her mother called her in. Katayoon knew that they have guests that day, her aunt and her family.

When Katayoon entered the room everybody was clapping cheerfully and they were congratulating her cousin, Manouchehr. Katayoon, 10, became very happy because she liked her cousin so much. He was 18 years older and always bought her cookies.

Katayoon joined the family clapped cheerfully and started to sing “congratulation to dear cousin Manoucher!” Suddenly her mother glared at her and said: “Be quite! You shouldn’t congratulate him. YOU ARE THE BRIDE.”

And that was the end of the story of Katayoon’s childhood.

Shirin’s neighbor, Mr. Khosravi, had three sons aging 23, 25 and 30. Shirin, 12, saw them several times on the route to the farm, when she went for harvesting wheat with her father.

One day Shirin’s mother told her that she is engaged to one of the sons of Mr. Khosravi. Shirin didn’t know which one until the wedding day. Three years later she was the mother of Fereydoon’s daughter, the oldest son of Mr. Khosravi.

Fifteen years later, when Shirin was pregnant with her fourth child, her first daughter, Golrokh, was also pregnant with her first child. The child and grand-child were born at the same month and the mother and grandmother breastfed both babies.

Hassan asked her mother to choose him a child bride. He believed he could raise her wife in the same manner he liked, therefore, her wife will be fully obedient. Hassan 34, married to a 12-year old girl, Kobra.

18 years later, when Kobra become 30, a healthy, matured and mindful woman, she became aware of the violence, she had burdened from her husband. A year later, Kobra asked Hassan for divorce.

Child marriage 

According to UNICEF, child marriage, is defined as a formal marriage or informal union before age 18, a reality for both boys and girls, although girls are disproportionately the most affected. Child marriage is widespread and can lead to a lifetime of disadvantage and deprivation.

Worldwide, more than 700 million women alive today were married as children. More than 1 in 3 – or some 250 million – were married before 15. Girls who marry before they turn 18 are less likely to remain in school and more likely to experience domestic violence. Young teenage girls are more likely to die due to complications in pregnancy and childbirth than women in their 20s; their infants are more likely to be stillborn or die in the first month of life. 

According to Iran’s Association of Children’s Rights, which is an NGO, the number of girls married in Iran under the age of 15 went from 33,383 in 2006 to 43,459 in 2009, a 30% increase in three years. This is due to deepening poverty and parents’ desire to control their daughter’s sexuality.

Iran’s attempts to increase legal age of marriage

According to the Iranian civil code, the legal age of marriage in the country is 13 for girls and 15 for boys.

Attempts are made to change this age to 18. Laya Joneidi, the vice president for legal affairs, raised the issue in an interview with IRNA, stressing that Majlis (the Iranian parliament) should become cooperative for changing the official age of girls’ marriage to 18.

Women’s committee of the Majlis, is discussing increasing the official minimum age of marriage. Some MPs are discussing on the age of 15 but the majority are trying to approve the age of 18 as the minimum official age.

Child marriage in Iran is between the ages of 10 to 14, IRNA quoted Sina Kalhor, head of the Majlis research center, adding a total number of 37,137 child marriages are registered in Iran in the calendar year  1394 (March 2015-2016).

The statistics is related to all 31 provinces of Iran, and Khorasan Razavi stands at the first position having the maximum number of child marriage in the country.

Although little data is available on child marriage in Iran, UNICEF estimates that approximately 17% of Iranian girls are married before the age of 18. The numbers may be even higher as many families in Iran do not register births or underage marriages.

According to Iran’s Association of Children’s Rights, which is an NGO, the number of girls married in Iran under the age of 15 went from 33,383 in 2006 to 43,459 in 2009, a 30% increase in three years. This is due to deepening poverty and parents’ desire to control their daughter’s sexuality.

Child brides, victims of ignorance, poverty

While data from 47 countries show that, overall, the median age at first marriage is gradually increasing, this improvement has been limited primarily to girls of families with higher incomes. But without far more intensive and sustained action now from all parts of society, hundreds of millions more girls will suffer profound, permanent, and utterly unnecessary harm:

- If rates of decline seen in the past three decades are sustained, the impact of population growth means the number of women married as children (more than 700 million) will remain flat through 2050; 

- Doubling the rate of decline would bring the number of women married as children down to 570 million by 2030 and 450 million by 2050.

According to a report published by Independent in July 2017, more than 200,000 children were married in the U.S. over the past 15 years.

Three 10-year-old girls and an 11-year-old boy were among the youngest to wed, under legal loopholes which allow minors to marry in certain circumstances.

The minimum age for marriage across most of the U.S. is 18, but every state has exemptions – such as parental consent or pregnancy – which allow younger children to tie the knot.

Evidence shows that girls who marry early often abandon formal education and become pregnant. Maternal deaths related to pregnancy and childbirth are an important component of mortality for girls aged 15–19 worldwide, accounting for 70,000 deaths each year (UNICEF, State of the World’s Children, 2009).

If a mother is under the age of 18, her infant’s risk of dying in its first year of life is 60 percent greater than that of an infant born to a mother older than 19. Even if the child survives, he or she is more likely to suffer from low birth weight, under nutrition and late physical and cognitive development. Child brides are at risk of violence, abuse and exploitation. Finally, child marriage often results in separation from family and friends and lack of freedom to participate in community activities, which can all have major consequences on girls’ mental and physical well-being.

Where prevalent, child marriage functions as a social norm. Marrying girls under 18 years old is rooted in gender discrimination, encouraging premature and continuous child bearing and giving preference to boys’ education. Child marriage is also a strategy for economic survival as families marry off their daughters at an early age to reduce their economic burden.

UNICEF is committed to efforts to end child marriage and is able to use its global leadership position, its mandate to provide data and evidence on child marriage, and its broad field-based programing in various sectors to bring about change on this issue. In 2012, UNICEF was instrumental in organizing the inaugural International Day of the Girl Child, which had child marriage as its theme. The event raised awareness of the issue and helped refocus attention on this harmful practice.

Addressing child marriage requires recognition of the various factors that contribute to the perpetuation of the practice. These include economic factors (e.g., the need to support many children, paying a lower dowry), structural factors (e.g., lack of educational opportunities), and social factors (e.g., sense of tradition and social obligation, risk of pregnancy out of wedlock, avoiding criticism whereby older unmarried girls may be considered impure).

Although in many Iranian societies and in some rural areas girls are matured physically and mentally earlier than other girls of the same age, the disadvantages of early marriage still exist for the child brides. 

Hopefully, 18, will be approved as the minimum official age for marriage and it will lead our next generation to enjoy more educated, healthy and spiritually matured mothers.

NM/MQ/MG

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