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Published: Sunday October 6, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Sunday October 6, 2013 MYT 6:30:09 AM

Real men don’t marry little girls

Fathers and future fathers can help put a stop to child marriage in the world.

MUHAMMAD Shahzad Khan was a child himself when he fought against the marriage of his 12-year-old sister.

“My eldest sister was going to be married off to our 50-year-old landlord. So I went on a hunger strike,” tells Shahzad who is now in his 30s.

His protest managed to get his sister out of the betrothal and she went on to university to pursue her studies.

But Shahzad and family were forced to leave their village in Pakistan.

“It is the tradition and custom we have,” he says with dry resignation.

Yet, Shahzad insists that he will not do it any other way.

“My other sisters are also going to university now; all my sisters have the same choices in life as I have.”

Shahzad, founding director of youth development organisation Chanan Development Association in Lahore, is one of a growing – albeit still slowly – brigade of men who are standing up against child marriages in the world.

“We need to engage young men to support this campaign against child marriages. They need to make a stand. Only then can we end this,” he rails against the archaic practice.

Closer to home, a paediatric neurologist from Ipoh, Perak, Dr Alex Khoo, shares how his grandmother’s own experience has shaped his stand on child marriages.

His grandmother was married off when she was still in her tweens, and had her first child at the age of 14.

“There was blatant transfer of parental responsibilities by my grandmother’s parents and there was no family honour nor reputation to uphold in her case. Gender inequality dictated that she be married off and it was done. They celebrated and there was a dowry. All she was told then was that the marriage was in her best interest,” he tells.

She has no recollection of ever enjoying parenthood, he says, “Duty and servitude were her mantra in life and she went on to have more than a dozen children.”

As a result of her early marriage, he adds, his grandmother’s personal development was stunted and she was rendered uneducated and unskilled.

“She was completely dependent on her in-laws and husband to survive. She had no negotiation skills and thus, no decision making power in her new household,” he laments.

“Now in her 90s, her negative experience still affects her, so much so that she will not fail to tell her grandchildren this every time they visit her: “Protect your children, don’t let them cry.”

It has made Dr Khoo determined to highlight the seriousness of this life-threatening situation and to appeal to all to take renewed actions to stop child marriage.

“There is always something that can be done, if you care enough. These children are gullible children, who had put their trust in their parents and their elders only to be betrayed. To marry off your child to somebody twice their age or in the recent case, triple the age of their child is unforgivable. It is a violation of their child’s right.”

He opines that as far as children and their safety goes, we as adults have so much wrong to undo, “If we remain silent and indifferent, then many more children would be crying exactly as my grandmother did and we would all drown one day in their tsunami of sorrow.”

Dr Khoo will definitely take comfort in South African social rights activist and retired Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu’s views on child marriage reiterated for the International Day of the Girl Child this Friday: “It is by standing up for the rights of girls and women that we truly measure up as men.”

The chair of The Elders (a group of high-profile world leaders), which is behind the global advocacy coalition against child marriages Girls Not Brides, Tutu has tirelessly written and spoken about how the problem is aided and abetted by men.

“Child marriage occurs because we men allow it. Fathers, village leaders, chiefs, religious leaders, decision makers – most are male. In order for this harmful practice to end, we need to enlist the support of all the men who know this is wrong, and to work together to persuade all those who won’t,” Tutu had said, urging men and boys everywhere to take a stand against the mistreatment of girls and women.

Child marriage – defined as marriage before the age of 18 – occurs to both minor boys and girls, but the practice is far more common among young girls.

And it cannot be denied that child marriage cuts across countries, culture, religions and ethnicity, notes Girls Not Brides global coordinator Lakshmi Sundaram.

While a multi-prong approach is needed to eradicate it, educating society, especially the boys and men, remains the most critical measure.

“The global community must take child marriage seriously. If we don’t, 142 million girls will marry as children by 2020, out of which 50 million would be under the age of 15,” she says, quoting the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which estimated that some 39,000 young girls under the age of 18 around the world are married off daily. This makes it 14 million girls married before turning 18 every year – one every three seconds.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) statistics indicate that the rates are highest in South Asia, where 46% of girls marry before they reach 18.

Malaysia is not exempted from this global phenomenon, although the actual data is fuzzier, with the latest figure available being from the 2000 Population and Housing Census which showed that some 6,800 girls under the age of 15 were married while 235 between the ages of 10 and 14 were widowed and 77 permanently divorced or permanently separated.

Getting the accurate number is important, cautions Sundaram, as child marriage is often a hidden problem.

“If you don’t measure the situation, it means that it is not taken seriously and you don’t know the extent of the problem or you can pretend that the problem does not exist. We can’t address a problem if we don’t have a handle of what it is and where it is.

Dr Venkatraman Chandra-Mouli of World Health Organisation’s adolescent sexual and reproductive health department also believes that child marriages are common everywhere in different pockets of the community, not just in “poor countries”. The bottom line to remember, he says, is that the practice is harmful not only to the child brides, but also their children, children’s children and so on.

“Most of these children have no say in the marriage, so their children will also have no access to education or will be married off at an early age, propagating a vicious cycle of poverty and violence for their future generations,” explains Dr Chandra-Mouli, stressing that educating society, especially the men, about the negative impacts of child marriage can free them from that fate.

He points out that young girls who marry before the age of 18 also have a greater risk of becoming victims of intimate partner violence.

“A young bride will have a low status in the family she is married into, less respect and low equality. She will only be seen as a sexual partner.

“This is especially true when the age gap between the child bride and spouse is large,” he notes.

A challenge, says Sundaram, is the perception that somehow, marriage protects girls.

“But that is not the case. It simply means that child brides fall off our radar and that the sexual, emotional and physical burdens they face are ignored.”

Girls who marry as children face a higher risk of health problems as they are initiated into sexual activity at an age when their body is still developing.

“Many child brides have also described their first sexual experience as forced. They are also more vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS.”

Complications in pregnancy and childbirth are also the leading causes of death for girls aged 15 to 19 in the developing world.

“Child brides are constantly under intense social pressure to prove their fertility, making them more likely to experience early and frequent pregnancies.”

It is crucial that young men are educated that girls who marry before they turn 18 will face a high health risk and be advised against child marriage, she stresses, “Young boys should be educated that real men do not marry young girls.”

Otherwise, some will have to learn it the hard way.

UN Women acting head Lakshmi Puri, who is from India, shared at the Women Deliver 2013 Conference in Kuala Lumpur in May the experience of her own grandfather who was left devastated after losing his wife when she was only 28 years old.

They were married when her grandmother was only 10, said Puri, and the repeated childbirth took a toll on her. Vowing not to allow his daughters to suffer the same fate, he sent them away to an orphanage so that they could be educated and have a chance at a better life.

Tags / Keywords: Women, Family & Community, child marriage

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