Today, many countries still set a lower minimum age of marriage for females than for males. However, there are an increasing number of women insisting that young girls not be married until they reach a sufficient age to make such an informed choice.
While the union of marriage is universal, in many parts of the world, men retain far greater power over their spouses. This recognition of a woman’s lack of power in the decision making process, both prior to and following a marriage union, is important for many reasons.
Statistics show that the majority of girls in Asia, Africa and Latin America are married by the age of 14. According to reports, in six of the 21 sub-Saharan African countries surveyed, the average age of marriage was less than 18. In Bangladesh, Guinea, Mali, Niger and Yemen, more than half of all young women interviewed were married by age 16. Gender discrimination in Hindu marriage law is perhaps one of the most extreme. Hindu law permits the marriage between very young girls to extraordinarily elderly men.
The fundamental principle, that all women should be entitled to “bodily integrity,” is not always recognized or enforced, however, and in parts of South Asia, this principle is often ignored. Violence against women and girls, forced early marriage, and other harmful practices are not uncommon.
Statistics show that in both Bangladesh and Bhutan, four percent of girls are married before the age of 14. In Maldives 12 percent, a staggering 40 percent in Nepal, four percent in Pakistan, and in Sri Lanka, 0.2 percent.
Furthermore, additional reports indicate that nearly seven percent of girls were found to be married before reaching the age of 10.
In Nepal, the civil code of 1963 fixed the legal age for marriage of girls at 16, and made polygamy and child marriage illegal. Nevertheless, while these laws may be on the books, they have shown to be faulty as well as contradictory. Such contradictions still exist as demonstrated by the Marriage Act, provision 6 of the civil code, which permits for the payment of a dowry; reports of extreme variations in the age of girls being married – as low as 13.7 years in the Tarai district of Mahottari – and as high as 25.8 years in the mountain district of Mustang, all of which have been recorded.
Urban women marry later than their rural counterparts, the average age being 18.5 and 17.1, respectfully. A breakdown of statistics shows that approximately 60 percent of the girls between the ages of 15-19 are married. Of all Nepalese women, 20 percent are married before the age of 15, and 40 percent by the age of 18. As shown, marriage at an early age is still the common practice in such rural areas.
Due to a host of problems and abuses of women, and as a result of early, or premature marriage, governments should take measures to combat these unions and should be held accountable for failure to do so.
Not only should all women have a choice in the decision making process of marriage, but they must have the right to express their sexuality without fear, abuse, risk of disease, or discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The existing world order, often based on injustice and unfair economic opportunities, is to a great extent, responsible for the discriminatory practices against women.
In summary, early marriage can have several harmful effects on the overall well being of a young girl, or child, who is not mentally, psychologically, emotionally or physically prepared for a conjugal life. However, as played out in many rural areas, women in the developing world attain status only through marriage and producing as many children as possible, and preferably, sons.