Child brides face ‘silent health emergency’

In an August 4 article, Trustlaw’s Lisa Anderson exposes the “silent health emergency” faced by child brides around the globe. According to Plan UK, a children’s rights organization, the marriage of a girl under 18 occurs every three seconds. This means that each year, largely in Africa and South Asia, 10 million girls become brides.

Beyond issues of consent and individual choice, early marriage poses grave health threats for young girls. Not yet physically mature, they face grave danger in childbirth, due to narrow pelvises. Girls younger than 15 years of age have a five times greater risk of dying during delivery than women over 20; most of these deaths occur in developing countries that lack adequate and accessible pre- and postnatal care.

“What you often see is that a girl gets married and within a month she becomes pregnant. That’s where the problems start because your body is not ready… Their reproductive organs aren’t mature enough,” says Fatou Diakhate, a Senegalese woman who was married at 13 and went on to fight to ban child marriage in her village of Keur Issa in 1998.

The heightened risk of obstructed or prolonged labor can lead to obstetric fistula, a stigmatized condition that can be prevented by cesarean section, but only in settings equipped to provide such a procedure. These young brides are also at greater risk for STDs and HIV/AIDS, as they are frequently married to older men who have had more sexual partners.

Child brides share health threats with their children: babies born to mothers younger than 18 are 60 percent more likely to die before their first birthday than those with mothers more than 19 years of age. Driven by pervasive poverty in the developing world, child marriage is a deep-rooted cycle with urgent and lasting health consequences.