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Child marriage rampant

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezSeptember 16, 2014

A new report finds that almost half of girls in South Asia marry before turning 18. But ending child marriage will not happen without addressing social norms within societies, as UNICEF's Stephen Adkisson tells DW.

Couples during a mass marriage ceremony in Kolkata (Photo: DW)
Image: DW/P.M.Tewari

The recently released report, entitled Improving Children's Lives, Transforming the Future - 25 years of child rights in South Asia, says that despite huge economic growth in the region and improvement in children's rights, young people in South Asia are still paying a "heavy price," with the figures showing that South Asia has the highest rate of child marriage in the world.

The study also found that the region is also one of the most dangerous places for women to become pregnant or give birth, with the second highest number of maternal deaths worldwide. Moreover, more than two million children in South Asia die before their fifth birthday. After birth, children face the risk of chronic malnutrition, which plagues 38 percent of all children in the region.

In a DW interview, Stephen Adkisson, UNICEF's Deputy Regional Director in South Asia, says it is crucial to engage communities to promote dialogue on issues such as child marriage, maternal deaths and gender-biased selection in order to change mindsets which are the result of deeply embedded social, economic, cultural and political factors.

DW: What are the key findings of the report?

Over the past 25 years, South Asia has made impressive progress towards realizing child rights. But there is more to be done. Millions of children are still unable to live in dignity, reach their full potential or make choices about their future.

Stephen Adkisson
Adkisson: 'In South Asia, child marriage is rooted in gender norms and expectations about a girl's value and role'Image: UNICEF

Our report has shown that while improvements have been made in almost all indicators, in terms of child protection, health, nutrition, education, sanitation and gender, huge disparities still exist. For example, more than two million children in South Asia die before their fifth birthday, and the majority of these deaths are preventable.

Around 38 percent of the region's children have chronic malnutrition. South Asia is one of the riskiest places in the world to become pregnant or give birth, with the second highest number of maternal deaths worldwide. Far too many children get married, and far too many girls are never born.

In addition, more than 8.15 million of the world's 22.6 million unimmunized children under one year of age live in South Asia. 46 percent of girls marry before 18, and 18 percent marry before the age of 15. The region is also home to the largest number of stunted children in the world. Nearly 700 million people still defecate in the open and 100 million children under five are not registered at birth. Afghanistan and Pakistan are two of the world's three remaining polio-endemic countries.

Why are so many women in South Asia married before they are 18?

Child marriage is a complex issue. In communities where the practice is prevalent, marrying a girl as a child is part of a cluster of social norms and attitudes. In the region, chronic poverty as well as disparity between the rich and the poor are also underlying causes for child marriage.

The figures clearly show correlation between higher rates of child marriage and risk factors such as poverty, low levels of education, and place of residence. Unequal gender norms in much of South Asia value boys and men higher than girls and women, so families and communities invest less in girls' education and development.

Poverty is a major factor - girls are often seen as an economic burden, so poor families prefer to invest their meager resources in the education of their sons; poor parents may also believe that marriage will secure a good future for their daughter. The customs of bride price and dowry may also provide financial incentives to marry off children at early age.

What does this practice say about the way women are largely viewed in the region?

In South Asia, child marriage is rooted in gender norms and expectations about a girl's value and role, and is a manifestation of widespread gender inequality and discrimination. Despite legislation banning child marriage in all eight countries, the comprehensiveness of the law and level of effectiveness in enforcement are inadequate, especially in contexts where social support for child marriage is high.

This means ending child marriage will not happen without addressing social norms within societies which accommodate the practice. It is crucial to engage communities to promote dialogue for them be able to collectively explore the option of delaying the age of marriage. Such discussions must respect the desire of families to uphold traditions while exposing the harm associated with the practice and reinforcing human rights principles.

Equipping young girls to better know themselves, their world and their options can diminish their social and economic isolation. They will also be viewed differently by parents and community members, making it unacceptable to marry at young ages. Offering economic support and incentives for girls and their families could also contribute to the end of practice.

The report also found that South Asia remains one of the riskiest places to become pregnant or give birth, despite major advancements in modern medicine. Why is this?

To help ensure a safe pregnancy and delivery of a healthy baby, a mother needs regular follow-up before birth, high quality healthcare during birth, and careful frequent reviews after birth. There have been advances and improvements in South Asia; our report shows that fewer babies die than twenty five years ago. Yet, progress has been too slow, advances in modern medicine are not always taken up quickly enough, and newborns still die unnecessarily.

To improve public health, the whole system needs to be strengthened. This includes things like securing equitable access to skilled birth attendants for rich and poor, and people living in cities and the countryside. Countries in South Asia have started to get behind this and they are starting to take action with the support of the United Nations, international agencies and non-government organizations.

Sex selection - where parents choose to terminate a pregnancy if they discover their unborn child is a girl - remains prevalent in parts of South Asia, and particularly in India. What are the often untold consequences of gender-biased sex selection in that part of the world?

Gender-biased sex selection favoring boys is a consequence of deeply embedded social, economic, cultural and political factors that discriminate against women and girls. One potential risk in areas where men are in the majority is that girls from elsewhere may be trafficked to the country for sex or to be forcibly married however, there is no evidence available in this regard.

The ward of the new born babies at Khyber Teaching Hospital in Peshawar, Pakistan. (Photo: DW/Danish Baber)
Adkisson: 'Stunting in children under the age of five is declining in In South Asia'Image: DW/D. Baber

The report also highlighted the impact of chronic malnutrition on children in South Asia, with nearly 40 per cent of all under-fives suffering from stunted growth. What progress has been made over the past years to combat malnutrition?

In South Asia, stunting in children under the age of five is declining. Around 1990, an estimated 61 percent of all children in the region were stunted. Around 2010, this dropped to 38 percent. Also, there have been some real challenges on this front to advance the rate of change - for example, some South Asian governments have been slow to accept that levels of stunting in the region are the highest in the world and that stunting is a marker and cause of poor development.

However, in the last decade especially, many governments in the region have begun to recognize the critical period spanning the first 1,000 days of life - from conception to the second year of life - in preventing stunting. Many countries like Nepal, India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are working to create and implement policies to improve infant and child nutrition and tackle severe acute malnutrition.

Stephen Adkisson is UNICEF's Deputy Regional Director in South Asia.