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Monday December 10, 2012 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Friday June 28, 2013 MYT 10:48:42 PM
by brigitte rozario
Young adolescents often lack the maturity for marriage. At that age they are just getting used to the changes their body is experiencing. - Reuters photo
Most parents in Malaysia would be horrified to read about a young adolescent getting married. Even though it is something that our great grandparents may have done many years ago, today it is unheard of, especially to cityfolk.At that age, most of us were still playing games with our friends and watching TV when we weren't doing homework.
Yet, it obviously does still happen in Malaysia (http://thestar.com.my/lifestyle/story.asp?file=/2012/10/11/lifeliving/12153402&sec=lifeliving).
How can a child be ready for marriage?
Miliee Kassim, executive trustee of Kassim Chin Humanity Foundation (KCHF) questions how children can be allowed to marry at such a tender age.
“They are not yet mature and still need taking care of. Even if children at this young age wanted to marry, one should realise that what these children have in mind may be just fantasy of what movies and storybooks are made of. The reality of responsibilities have not dawned upon them yet,” she says.
Author, trainer and mother of six, Jamilah Samian believes that the scenario is different for every individual.
“The map is not the territory. Reality for one person is very different from another. We tend to make assumptions and judgments, based on our own experiences and values, and impose it on other people despite the fact that we know so little about them, apart from what we read in the media. We don't know their specific circumstances. We may not even make an attempt to understand where they're coming from! How do we know if it's the right or wrong thing to do?” she asks.
Elaine Yong, lecturer and developmental psychologist with Sunway University says that at age 11-13, an individual is transitioning from the phase of late childhood to adolescence. The major developmental milestone at this period is puberty and identifying their sexual identity.
“Physically, a young adolescent is adjusting and learning to accept the physical changes that his/ her body is experiencing. Some individuals may readily accept these physical changes while others may take a longer time. And on the other extreme, some may be overly obsessed and develop anxiety towards their body image.
“Emotionally, as an impact of puberty, boys and girls begin to take an interest in the opposite gender. They begin to leave behind childhood preferences of mixing with same sex peers. Through these social interactions, some boys/ girls develop 'crushes' and begin exploring their sexual identities.
“Secondly, at that age, children are more likely to confide in their peers rather than their parents. However, they will still highly regard parental approval and see their older siblings are role models. Cognitively, a young adolescent has just begun to develop critical thinking. They will find abstract thinking challenging. They are years away from developing rational thinking. Most adults may only reach rational cognitive development at 24 years.
“Thus, at age 11-13, with the developmental milestones explained, we are seeing an individual who is not ready for marriage in most aspects be it physically, socio-emotionally or cognitively. He is just beginning to explore his sexual identity and become more critical of the world with the support from the family. For girls, they may be ready to physically mother a child but they will have difficulty carrying and delivering a full-term baby. Most children that age are awkward and shy and are desperately trying to identify with themselves; and are not ready to emotionally and cognitively handle the expectations of marriage and parenthood,” she says.
According to the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), there is often pressure on girls who marry young to have children before their bodies are fully developed. This puts their health and lives at risk.
Those aged below 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s. In addition, they are at greater risk for obstetric fistula, a medical condition often caused by prolonged or obstructed labour.
The ICRW says that infants born to young mothers are likely to be premature births and have low birth weight. In fact, they are more likely to die.
Psychologist Yong says young adolescents who marry will have a shortened childhood. Typically, they will have to give up school because they have a family to care for. This deprives the individual of completing her education and an opportunity to gain a respectable employment. Someday, she may harbour resentment at having missed this lifetime opportunity to have a complete education and childhood.
It is likely that they will also lose their friends due to lack of common areas of interest to talk about; and changed priorities. Their friends get to attend school and remain single. Family ties with their parents will be viewed very differently as the individual is no longer perceived as a child and will need to exercise their own discretion or turn to their spouse when faced with any difficulties.
“In terms of dealing with parenthood, these individuals may be ignorant about family planning methods and do not know how to avoid unwanted pregnancies. There have been incidences/ reports of girls not being aware of their pregnancies until they feel the movements of the developing foetus in their bellies.
“When people marry young, there is an increased risk of divorce. Young people fail to anticipate the responsibilities and maturity needed in dealing with the many challenges a marriage will put them through; such as, unemployment, unexpected pregnancies, and in-laws. Instead, their expectations of marriage are unrealistic and based on romantic fantasies; hence they may not be prepared to make compromises and have mature discussions with their spouses,” says Yong.
She adds that young couples are likely to have more children and have a lower quality of life. As their babies may be born with lower birth weight or even prematurely, this will bring on additional health and learning risks. This may start or continue the vicious poverty cycle as their own children do not have good role models to look up to.
Miliee sees many young mothers and single mothers in her work as executive trustee of KCHF.
KCHF has five community centres looking after the welfare of the poor and needy families around Selangor. There are a few cases where the schoolgoing children get pregnant and drop out of school. According to Miliee, the parents of these children will try to get the boy to marry them. In such cases, the boy is usually also a child.
“Almost all of these early marriages break down and cause more heartaches and sorrow. We have a case where a single mother 40 years of age has seven children - all from different fathers. She is being left to defend for herself and the children. One of her children aged 16 years is now pregnant … and the cycle continues.
“Most marriages break down due to financial problems, extra marital affairs and drugs/alcohol addiction. The parents should guide and advise the children but in these kinds of circumstances, they themselves are caught in this neverending cycle. We have a family that has a grandmother who married at age 14, followed by the daughter who also got married at 14 and the granddaughter who is pregnant at aged 15.
“Most of them regret getting married so young and facing so many challenges. Most of the parents now work hard holding two to three jobs and have hardly any time to care for the children. Most of these children are left on their own or sometimes some lucky ones with the grandmothers. Most them stay in low-cost housing flats, where the environment is not conducive at all for young growing children,” says Miliee.
Education is key
According to her, usually girls who get married at such a young age eventually drop out of school. Initially, they are excited about being married, but after a while, the reality sinks in and most regret getting married. The situation will become worse when they get pregnant and face health risks. When the babies come along, that's when the reality of the huge commitment hits them.
Miliee believes that education is one of the most effective ways to empower girls and single mothers. Girls who are more educated don't normally marry young, she informs.
She believes that parents should discourage early marriages. “They, of all people, should know better all the responsibilities that come with marriage. Instead of outright denouncement of the relationship, it would be better to have a heart-to-heart talk and explain to them the consequences. When kids are in love, it is extremely difficult to tell them to stop. It doesn't work that way. Instead talk to them and advise them. Do not break them up or else they will rebel and run away. Communication and advice are the best.
“Meanwhile, encourage them to study hard and give them the respect due. Most parents, in the heat of the moment, will admonish the child as if they have committed a grave crime. There is nothing wrong with falling in love. In fact, it is one of most memorable and happy moments of their life. Guidance is the keyword and, of course, educating them of all the consequences,” she adds.
What can parents do?
Caught in a situation where parents are worried that their child could be involved in illicit activities at a young age and, not wanting to push them into marriage yet, here's what author / trainer Jamilah suggests:
“Most important - calm down when they break the news that they want to marry. Don't over-react. Then sit and talk. I know of parents who have made drastic decisions purely because they were worried about their children's choices (not necessarily related to marriage). These drastic decisions include moving to another city, bringing the kids home (from boarding school) and transferring them to another school, and maintaining a curfew. Whatever it is, you can't lock them in the house, so you still need to reach a decision which is respected and agreed (although grudgingly) by your child.”
To prevent children from participating in illicit activities, here are some tips from Jamilah:
1) Look for teachable moments when you can raise the subject and discuss it in a non-threatening manner. If everyone is on the same page, and your child is aware of the implications, he / she is unlikely to take this option.
2) Spend time to build rapport and trust with your children, especially teenagers. When you become their reference point, they respect your views and concerns. Be their trusted confidant.
3) Close supervision. As much as you want to trust your teenagers, they are still undergoing a phase of rapid change and vulnerability. You can't trust them 100%.
4) Be firm on your expectations and boundaries, and enforce them. This part has a lot to do with your values.
Unicef against child marriage
Wivina Belmonte, Unicef (The United Nations Children's Fund) Representative to Malaysia, responds to the issue of child marriage:
According to Unicef's estimates (2005), over 64 million women around the world aged 20-24 years were married or in partnerships before the age of 18 (www.childinfo.org/marriage.html).
Worldwide statistics show that though child marriages affect both boys and girls, the practice has a disproportionately negative impact on the girl. Cultural norms, traditional practices and religious beliefs play a significant role in encouraging and sustaining this practice. In fact, in some jurisdictions, legislation allows child marriages.
Unicef believes that none of these factors are justified, as they violate the rights of every child.
A startling fact is that an estimated 14 million girls between the ages of 15 and 19 worldwide give birth each year. They are twice as likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth than women in their 20s (middleeast.about.com/od/humanrightsdemocracy/a/child-brides.htm).
Girls younger than 15 years old are five times more likely to die during pregnancy or at childbirth than women in their 20s. The health of their children is also affected, manifesting in premature births, low birth rates, and poor physical and mental growth.
In addition, as a consequence of early marriage, girls usually drop out of school, which irreversibly limits their life opportunities.
The consequences of child marriage do not end when child brides reach adulthood, but often follow them throughout their lives as they struggle with the health effects of getting pregnant too young and too often. Their lack of education thwarts their opportunities for taking part in the work force and to be economically independent.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), ratified by Malaysia in 1995 clearly provides for the abolishment of traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children.
The CRC provides a firm basis for taking action and re-evaluating practices with respect to the protection of children.
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