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20 years see a decline in child marriage among the young in South Asia but older girls still at risk

Marriage rates are decreasing among girls in South Asia, but 16 to 18 year olds are still at risk.

Professor Anita Raj’s findings on prevalence rates of girl child marriage in South Asia over the past twenty years show mixed results.

Child marriage is a global problem, but in South Asia the issue is particularly acute. It was here that Professor Anita Raj of the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) decided to base her study, which examined the prevalence of girl child marriage over the past 20 years.

Professor Raj’s findings, recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, show signs of positive progress in reducing early marriage across South Asia, but reveal that there is still some way to go to end child marriage in a region where 46 percent of girls marry as children.

Over the past twenty years, in line with increased efforts to raise awareness and eliminate the practice, there has been a significant decline in marriage rates for girls under the age of 14. Professor Raj examined Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) from Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan from 1991 to 2007 and found that rates of early marriage for girls under 14 decreased by 35 percent in India, 45 percent in Bangladesh, 57 percent in Nepal and 61 percent in Pakistan.

While this is good news for girls and campaigners everywhere, Professor Raj reports that conversely, the marriage rate for older girls, those aged 16-17, remained the same. In the case of Bangladesh, the rate has in fact increased by 36 percent.

What does this mean?

Although the statistics may not be as uplifting as we would have hoped, they underline two key points. Firstly, these findings prove that harmful traditions and customs can be broken. Both raising awareness and changing social perceptions have gone a long way to alter harmful practices.

Secondly, it points us to trends which may be influencing the decision to leave marriage until later. For example, Professor Raj cites the influence of improvements in girls’ education as a possible factor contributing to the success in delaying early marriages. Awareness-raising and increased pressure on families to encourage their girls to finish education would explain why we have seen a decrease in marriages among younger girls.

In many schools in South Asia, however, graduation is typically when students complete ‘10th standard’ grade, which is when they are 15 to 16 years old. This could go some way to explaining why early marriage rates among older teens have not decreased. Although additional study is needed to confirm this hypothesis, it suggests that encouraging education to a later age could go a long way in supporting the drive against child marriage.

At best, this information lets us know that efforts to prevent marriage among the youngest girls in South Asia have made a difference to many. At worst, it lets us know that change is possible, especially in areas where traditions seem set in stone. If we take inspiration from these facts and figures, we can continue our efforts to raise awareness, improve education, and work towards ensuring financial stability in areas where girls desperately need help to find their voice, make their own informed choices and fulfil their potential.

For the full text of the study see the Journal of the American Medical Association