By Khalea Callender, World YWCA Programme Associate.
The practice of child, early and forced marriage is widespread and occurs in all regions of the world. The World YWCA recognising that it constitutes a violation, abuse or impairment of human rights, it prevents individuals from living their lives free from all forms of violence and it has adverse consequences on the enjoyment of human rights, such as the right to education, the right to the highest attainable standard of health, including sexual and reproductive health rights.
According to an UNFPA report, globally, an estimated 1 in 3 young women aged 20 to 24 are married before the age of 18. If present trends continue, an estimated 142 million girls will be married by their 18th birth day by 2020. Child marriage is an unacceptable violation of the rights of children, particularly adolescent girls with long term negative consequences on their health and wellbeing. It denies these children their childhood, disrupting their access to education, limiting their ability to participate in economic and social spheres, and jeopardizing their health – including increasing the risk of dying from complications during pregnancy or childbirth. It renders girls and young women more vulnerable to intimate partner violence, including sexual violence and can increase the risk of HIV. Child marriage resulting from physical and/or emotional force is a form of violence itself.
Child, early and forced marriages is not limited to Africa and Asia as many may believe. In the Caribbean and a lot of other parts in the world, this human right violation, is associated much with teenage pregnancy. “The State of World Population 2013,” produced by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), notes that out of the 7.3 million births, 2 million are to girls who are 14 or younger, many of whom suffer “grave long-term health and social consequences from pregnancy.” The reality is that teenage pregnancy is most often not the result of a deliberate choice but rather the absence of choices, and of circumstances beyond a girl’s control. It is a consequence of little or no access to school, employment, quality information and health care.
According to UNFPA the rates of teenage pregnancy in the Caribbean were among the highest in the world, with 20 per cent of all females in the region becoming mothers before their 20th birthday, many of them before they are 15 years old. In Jamaica, 45 per cent of all women who are between 15 to 24 years old had their first pregnancy by age 19. Similar statistics are recorded in Belize, Guyana, the Dominican Republic and St. Vincent. With an estimated one-third of Caribbean teenage girls being married before their 18th birthday, many are compelled to do so by unexpected/unplanned pregnancies.
Trinidad and Tobago, with just a population size of about 1.3 million, 2,500 teenage pregnancies is reported annually noting that these are only the figures reported to their Student Support Services, many are still unrecorded. Dr. Tim Gopeesingh, the Minister of Education, speaking in the Senate, said that most teenagers had become pregnant for fathers who were between the ages of 25-40 and that some of the mothers were below the ages of 12. The Education Minister told legislators that research by the Faculty of Medical Science of the University of the West Indies in Trinidad and Tobago (UWI) showed that by age 19, more than 1,000 young women already had four children. The government of Trinidad and Tobago has though taken further steps to protect the rights of children by establishing a child protection task force. This committee recently submitted a report to the government who is reviewing the recommendation put forward.
The conservative cultures of many parents in the Caribbean region, brings pressure to bear on teenage parents. The YWCA of Trinidad and Tobago (YWCATT), has identified that in order to tackle teenage pregnancy, one must adopt a holistic approach, which does not only dwell on changing girls’ behaviour but seeks to change attitudes in society so girls are encouraged to stay in school, child marriage is banned, girls have access to sexual and reproductive health including contraception, and young mothers have better support systems. The YWCATT has developed programmed to empower young women to increase their decision making abilities. One such program is the “I am worth defending”. This programme was developed for girls between the ages of 12 to 16 years who live in displaced homes across Trinidad and Tobago, teaching them some basic self-defence techniques and while building self-esteem using a human rights based approach.
Child, early and force marriage can only be classified as a human rights violation, it affects the rights of girls and women. It entrenches gender inequalities, it undermines girls’ right to free and full consent to participate in decisions affecting them, to live free from all forms of stigma, coercion, discrimination, violence and exploitation including slavery and servitude. Furthermore, it undermines their rights to an education, health, including sexual and reproductive health and rights and the prospect of living prosperous and fulfilling lives and being able to fulfill their God given destiny.
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