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Early Marriage and Adolescent Girls

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Author: 
Hillary J. Bracken
Nicole Haberland
Erica L. Chong
Affiliation: 

Population Council

Publication Date

December 1, 2005

From YouthLens Number 15, this issue focuses on the need for greater policy and programmatic attention for adolescent girls at risk of child marriage (marriage prior to age 18) and for those girls already married. It addresses how policymakers and programme managers are working to address the needs of this group.

As stated here, "Girls married before age 18 have low educational attainment, earning power, and social mobility. In some settings, married girls have been shown to have higher rates of HIV infection than their sexually active unmarried peers." Though all regions have countries where early marriage is prevalent, some South Asian and West African countries may have rates of adolescent marriage of females as high as 50%. The risks of early marriage include: higher frequent of unprotected sexual activity; higher risks in childbirth; higher risks of acquiring HIV; lower educational attainment and fewer schooling opportunities; less household and economic power than older married women; less mobility than unmarried counterparts or married women; less exposure to modern media; more limited social networks: and greater risk of gender-based violence in some settings.

According to the document, "[m]arried girls have less exposure to modern media. Studies in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, and Nepal, as well as the Kenya data analysis, show that married girls are generally exposed to less media than unmarried girls or girls who married later. Increasingly, modern media are a means of providing information on reproductive health and HIV prevention, increasing social contact with the world, changing interpersonal communications about HIV/AIDS, and in some cases changing social norms." [Footnotes removed by editor.]

The document recommends that programmes foster policies and norms that support later marriage and offer services, resources, and options to families to delay marriage. These include: assuring girls’ school attendance; providing economic opportunities; developing meaningful policies regarding registering marriages and enforcing laws concerning minimum age at marriage; and working with religious leaders, parents, and others who shape community norms to discourage marriage below the legal minimum age.

For example, "[a] five-year project in Nepal found that involving the community in efforts to improve opportunities for unmarried girls contributed to changing traditional attitudes about early marriage among parents and communities. The project provided information and services for adolescents using peer education, youth clubs, street theater, and skills-building workshops."

The document recommends that policymakers and managers open new educational opportunities, expand social networks, build economic assets, enhance the negotiating power of married girls, and provide reproductive health and HIV prevention information and services to married girls, and, as appropriate, to their partners. "For example, a program in western Kenya is raising awareness of HIV risks associated with early marriage, establishing clubs for married girls, and promoting voluntary counselling and testing among those couples newly married or contemplating marriage." In order to provide reproductive health information and support, programmes must consider the limited mobility of married girls and design socially acceptable means to provide needed information, social connections, and services. For example, programmes in India use household visits to married couples to provide information on birth spacing, safe delivery, postpartum care, and partner communication. To increase married girls’ connections with non-familial peers and mentors and to enhance their ability to act on their own behalf, girls' groups are formed that engage girls in various social and economic activities. A programme in Nepal found that, through health fairs, talk programmes, and educational events for husbands, young women's safe motherhood practices increased; however, their knowledge and practice of contraception did not increase as significantly. "Given the strong filtering of information and support role of husbands, mothers-in-law, and others, and since married girls often lack ready access to mainstream media, media messages might be designed strategically for parents, husbands, in-laws, and other gatekeepers. Some governments are using marriage registration systems to provide young people with reproductive health information and to visit young couples who have recently had a child."

The authors conclude that public- and private-sector leaders and programmers must work together to delay the age at marriage and support married girls.

Source: 

YouthNet website, accessed on April 29 2010.

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