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Family planning and child brides: fulfilling their right to choose

Photo Credit: Peter Canton/IPPF

This article was first published in the lead up to the 2012 London Family Planning summit, organised by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK’s Department for International Development. It was edited and re-published for the 2013 Women Deliver conference in Malaysia.

Around the world, more than 200 million girls and women want to fulfil their right to choose when, whether and how many children they have, yet they are unable to access the contraception that would enable them to do so.

The latest estimates indicate that worldwide more than 60 million women aged 20–24 years were married before the age of 18. Clearly, if we are to help ensure that we meet the rightly ambitious goals of fulfilling the need for contraception of millions of girls and women, child brides must be included in discussions.

Family planning support for child brides will save lives

Child brides are among those who could most benefit from family planning support. Marrying so young usually means the initiation of sexual activity at an age when girls know little about their bodies, their sexual and reproductive health, or their right to access contraception.

Child brides are also under intense social pressure to prove their fertility, which means they are more likely to experience early and frequent pregnancies at an age when childbirth is extremely dangerous. In fact, death in childbirth is the leading cause of death for girls aged 15-19 in the developing world.

And with girls who give birth before the age of 15 five times more likely to die in childbirth than girls in their 20s, we can be left with little doubt that programmes that help child brides to prevent early pregnancy and pregnancy-related complications will save lives.

Child brides have little power to plan whether, when or how many children to have

If we are to reach child brides with effective family planning support, however, we must consider the particular circumstances in which they live.

The ultimate aim of family planning initiatives must be to allow women to exercise their right to choose when and whether to have children, yet this is rarely an option for child brides who are unable to assert their wishes with their often older husbands.

Child brides are isolated and vulnerable. Even where family planning services are available, young brides are difficult to reach with such support. According to an analysis by UNICEF carried out in 28 countries, girls aged 15-19 who use modern contraception are less likely to be married than girls of the same age who report relying only on traditional methods. This suggests that married girls cannot or do not access modern methods.

No controversy: child brides must be on the agenda

Talking about family planning has for too long been seen as controversial or taboo. Similarly, so has child marriage. The Women Deliver conference provides an opportunity to address both issues openly and frankly and to discuss how we can fulfil the fundamental right of child brides to plan whether, how many and when to have children. Child brides must be on the agenda; they too have a right to choose.

If I was married tomorrow what would I lose? My independence, my vision, my dreams.

Hosna

Family Planning Association of Bangladesh, a member of International Planned Parenthood Federation, held a workshop for girls on the importance of birth spacing, ending gender-based violence and reducing early marriage. They work to empower women and girls though education, skill development and by encouraging female participation at all levels.

Hosna, one of the beneficiaries, feared being forced into early marriage and pregnancy. “I knew it would mean dropping out of school, moving away from friends and family and then childbirth. I had heard of girls dying when giving birth. If I was married tomorrow what would I lose? My independence, my vision, my dreams.”