Adolescent pregnancy as a root cause of CEFMU in Southeast Asia

By Raji Sharma, Associate Researcher at Includovate

Child, Early and Forced Marriage and Unions (CEFMU), commonly referred to as child marriage, is defined as the formal or informal union between a child under the age of 18 and an adult or another child. The drivers and root causes of CEFMU are wide-ranging and interrelated, and vary between different regions of the world. In Southeast Asia, adolescent pregnancy is a key driver and root cause of CEFMU, as discussed in this article.

A violation of child rights

Child marriage has dire consequences on the present and future of children, forcing them out of education and compelling them into a life with increased risk of poverty, violence, abuse, or ill-health. The Convention on the Rights of the Child stipulates 18 as the minimum age for marriage and Target 5.3 of UN Sustainable Development Goal 5, which seeks to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls, commits all United Nations member states to eliminate child marriage by 2030.

At present, there are more than 650 million women and girls globally who were married as children. Given the populations of some Asian countries, the number of children affected by CEFMU is vast.

Child marriage and adolescent pregnancy

In Southeast Asia, where approximately 12 million girls are married before the age of 18 every year, an increasing number of adolescents entering marriage and informal unions means a further increase in the rate of adolescent pregnancy. Although adolescent birth rates have declined in South Asia, in Southeast Asia, numbers have remained stagnant or have increased to 47 births per 1000 females aged 15 to 19, a number close to the global average of 50.

In a nutshell, the developing world witnesses around 7 million girls below the age of 18 giving birth every year, of which 2 million are under the age of 14. At this pace, the number of adolescent mothers under the age of 15 could rise to 3 million annually by 2030.

Multiple drivers of child marriage

In societies driven by poverty and a lack of educational and livelihood opportunities, child marriage is often considered an attempt to adhere to social norms that determine that girls who’ve engaged in sex need to be married off early. This proves beneficial for the bride’s family in economic terms due to the dowry or ‘bride price’ factor, which is lower for younger brides. According to traditional beliefs, the higher the age of a bride or her education, the higher the dowry demanded by her soon to be husband’s family — a major reason many parents want to marry off their daughters as early as possible.

Pregnancy as both a driver and consequence of CEFMU

Child marriages are also seen as a solution for girls who get pregnant, to escape social humiliation, isolation, violence, or expulsion from school. For example, in Thailand, which saw an increase in the adolescent birth rate from 40 to over 50 per 1,000 girls over the past 10 years, studies show that pregnant adolescents often get married to ‘save face’. This may also be because adolescents who want to get rid of unwanted pregnancies may not be able to do so due to limited access to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) knowledge and information, misconceptions and barriers to accessing contraception, or restrictions on abortion in many countries in the region.

Child marriage also encourages the initiation of sexual activity at an age when girls’ bodies are still developing, therefore the risks associated with pregnancy and childbirth are very high. As a result, complications during pregnancy and childbirth stand out as a leading cause of death of girls aged 15–19 in the developing countries, with 90% of these deaths taking place among married girls. Maternal mortality rates (MMR) and infant mortality rates (IMR) are higher for adolescents who give birth at an early age, as seen in Lao PDR, where the MMR among adolescents aged 15 to 19 is 190 per 100,000 live births compared to 178 per 100,000 live births for women aged 20–24.

Addressing CEFMU, reducing adolescent pregnancies and maternal mortality

Studies have found that a 10% reduction in child marriage could be associated with a 70% reduction in maternal mortality rates, ensuring a long life for young girls, who otherwise know very little about their bodies, their sexual and reproductive health, and their right to access contraception.

While the legal age of marriage in Southeast Asian countries ranges between 18 to 21 years, customary or religious law, parental consent, and court orders can be obtained to facilitate child marriage, clearly showing that local customs still precede international norms in the region. Taking Indonesia as an example, the legal age for girls and boys to marry is 21 years, but with parental consent, it is 16 for girls and 19 for boys.

A holistic approach to address CEFMU and adolescent pregnancies

Reducing adolescent pregnancy requires looking at underlying causes such as gender inequality, discriminatory norms, poverty, violence, societal pressure, and stereotypes about young women and girls. Such complexities, coupled with government inaction, perpetuate the legal and practical barriers that allow for girls to be married off against their will or without any viable legal remedy. Any analysis of these matters needs to go beyond merely focusing on girls’ behaviours and should include a more comprehensive, multi-stakeholder approach to sexuality education.

With CEFMU deeply entrenched in patriarchy and unequal gender relations, eradicating CEFMU will not be an easy task. It requires improved research and data on adolescent sexuality, unbiased access to SRHR services, stringent policy changes, and the coming together of governments, CSOs and regional forums to curb child marriage at the regional level.

About the Author

Raji is a development practitioner who aims to work towards achieving real development that is inclusive, holistic, and scalable. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Lady Shri Ram College for Women and a Master’s degree in Sustainable Development Practice from TERI School of Advanced Studies.

She began her career working on thematic areas like Gender-based violence, Women’s Skills development and Feminist foreign policy, and holds a keen interest in gender-based issues. Over the past year and half, Raji has effectively conducted research in non-profits on corporate social responsibility. Her research publications include- “Why India Should Adopt a Feminist Foreign Policy Framework” and “Cooperation is key as Himalayan nations deal with glacial floods”.

Includovate is a feminist research incubator that “walks the talk”. Includovate is an Australian social enterprise consisting of a consulting firm and research incubator that designs solutions for gender equality and social inclusion. Its mission is to incubate transformative and inclusive solutions for measuring, studying, and changing discriminatory norms that lead to poverty, inequality, and injustice. To know more about us at Includovate, follow our social media: @includovate, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram.

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