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Ending Child Marriage

A first-ever international appeal aims to end child marriage in South Asia

“I was turned into someone’s wife before I knew what it meant to me,” remembers Rahar Maya Biswokarma, a Nepalese woman who was married off by her family at age 10. “All my joy was gone at once.”

Forced to leave her parents and her childhood home, to bear children while still a child herself, and to suffer through a lifetime of profound isolation as well the enduring physical trauma of a uterine prolapse that likely occurred as the result of giving birth at a young age, Maya looks back at her 40-year marriage with sorrow: “Perhaps I’ll regret getting married early throughout my life, until my death.”

Deprived of her dignity, her health, and a sense of personal fulfillment, Rahar Maya’s story is a disturbing but familiar tale. The centuries-old practice of child marriage in South Asia continues to plague generations of young girls and women in the modern world. Although there have been laws against child marriage in place throughout the region since 1929, estimates suggest that as many as 130 million South Asian girls will be forced into child marriage between 2010 and 2030—unless governments stop this practice immediately. Lax enforcement, entrenched regional customs, and a sense that marriage falls into the personal realm have allowed this harmful practice to perpetuate.

For the first time in history, key stakeholders in South Asia have come together to urge their governments to clarify, strengthen, and enforce their laws to end child marriage. Earlier this month, officials from member states of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the region’s collaborative political body, and members of civil society endorsed an innovative call for action that implores governments to utilize legal mechanisms to address this human rights crisis.

The Center for Reproductive Rights and the South Asia Initiative to End Violence against Children (SAIEVAC)—which has led the development of a regional action plan to end child marriage to be implemented in January 2015—were the lead organizers in this effort. The Center has deployed its extensive legal expertise to promote the use of international and national norms and mechanisms for catalyzing change.

“We have been frustrated that despite clear international legal obligations to eliminate child marriage, South Asian governments have continued to show a lack of accountability in establishing proper legal frameworks and implementing and enforcing their laws to end this egregious practice,” says Melissa Upreti, the Center’s regional director for Asia. “This call for action demands that governments in the region urgently take concrete steps to protect the rights and well-being of millions of their most disenfranchised citizens.”

The document outlines a set of specific recommendations, such as codifying minimum age requirements for marriage, establishing legal remedies for girls whose rights are violated through child marriage which involves sexual violence and marital rape, providing counseling as well as sexual and reproductive health information and services, and improving national accountability measures for human rights violations.

“With the support of a number of high-ranking government officials, the call for action is an exciting culmination of years of advocacy, research, and intervention,” notes Upreti. Last year, as part of the launch of our current strategy in the region, the Center published an in-depth human rights analysis (Child Marriage in South Asia: Stop the Impunity) detailing the disturbing range of human rights violations associated with the practice.

The repercussions of child marriage are often disastrous—setting into motion a continuum of harm both for the young girls and for their communities. Early marriage leaves girls vulnerable to sexually contracted diseases as well as domestic violence and marital rape as a result of the power imbalance in the relationship. It also exposes them to life-threatening complications like the uterine prolapse that Rahar Maya experienced. Girls between the ages of 15 and 19 are twice as likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth compared to women over 20, and the risk is far greater for those under 15.

Ahead of SAARC’s 18th summit in Kathmandu next week, representatives from civil society will gather for an event where the historic call for action will be formally read aloud, ensuring that ending child marriage is central to the conversation of South Asia’s future.