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WASHINGTON--Raising the legal age of marriage is among the more important actions that countries can take to bring their populations into balance with resources and the environment, says the president of the Population Institute.
Lawrence Smith, Jr., who heads the Washington-based nonprofit organization, maintains that early marriage "almost inevitably" leads to high fertility, which, in turn, translates into poverty, malnourishment, disease, maternal mortality and morbidity and illiteracy. The practice is widespread in countries of West Africa and South Asia.
"Unsurprisingly, underage marriage extends the reproductive years of women, which frequently result in pregnancies of girls who are not physically ready for childbirth," Smith said. "And because they are not ready, many of these pregnancies result in complications that threaten the lives of both the girls and their babies."
An all-too-frequent outcome of pregnancy among very young girls is obstetric fistula, Smith noted, which occurs when the birth canal is insufficiently developed to support a fetus. The condition is virtually unknown in more affluent countries but it has "ruined the lives of thousands of girls, who are closer to being children than women -- girls who should be in classrooms, not in marriages."
Smith referred to a report by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) estimating that over the next decade 100 million girls under the age of 18 will marry. Prepared for the U.S. Agency for International Development, the report says that 51 million women worldwide between the ages of 20 and 24 were married before reaching that age.
The report notes that last year 16 of 20 countries with the highest rates of child marriage received a total of more than $600 million in U.S. foreign assistance last year. These countries include Mali, where women average 7.1 children, and Mozambique, where they average 5.4 children.
USAID says that one in three girls in developing countries, where 98 percent of world population growth occurs, marries before the age of 18. More than three-quarters of girls in Niger, where women average eight children, marry before they are 18 and most of them at age 15.
"I am emphatically not suggesting that the U.S. government cut off or reduce humanitarian assistance to countries that allow young girls to marry," Smith said. "This would amount to punishing not only the surviving babies, who are obviously innocent victims, but also punishing their mothers who are often also victims of this practice."
In a number of poor countries, parents routinely encourage the marriage of very young daughters both to ensure that they will be cared for and because many traditional cultures insist that brides be virgins.
Kathleen Selvaggio, author of the ICRW report, stresses that child brides "cannot negotiate the terms of sex" with husbands, who are usually older and have had previous sexual partners. Selvaggio said these girls can neither insist on fidelity nor on condom use.
A spokesman for the Embassy of India in Washington told USA Today that half of Indian girls are married before age 18 despite a national prohibition against the practice. He says the Indian government imposes jail terms and fines, even for those attending weddings of underage brides.
A spokesman for the Embassy of Niger says his country combats the practice by trying to keep girls in school, but only about a third of girls in that country are enrolled. .
Legislation in the U.S. Congress would authorize $100 million over four years for efforts aimed at stopping child marriages. Representative Betty McCollum, D-Minnesota, and Senators Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, and Chuck Hagel, R-Nebraska, have also introduced measures to require the State Department to include child marriage statistics in annual international human rights reports.
"Every year in poor countries, millions of girls - pre-teens and teens - become the wives of older men," says Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minnesota. "This custom is not marriage, but rather sanctions sexual abuse and human rights violation that destroys girls' lives."
The problem of underage marriage must be approached from different levels, says Lawrence Smith, Jr. "Information, education and empowerment are certainly the keys: Informing parents and the girls themselves of the health and social consequences of early marriage," he said. "Making educational attainable for girls and ensuring that they are able to remain in school would be a substantial stride towards reducing this practice, which prompts early pregnancy that often perpetuates poverty, deprivation, illiteracy and their myriad ramifications."