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Young brides in Laos face uncertain futures

“I was 15 years old when I got married,” says Nuan, 18, who lives in the northern province of Bokeo, Laos. Bordering Thailand and Burma, it’s the smallest and least populous province in the country. It’s also one of the most diverse, home to 34 ethnic groups living in an area defined by the Mekong River, which brings both trade and tourists.

Child marriage is a common, if underreported, issue in Southeast Asia, where between 10-24 per cent of women aged 20-24 years old are married by the time they are 18. In Vietnam, 12 per cent of women aged 20-24 were married before their 18th birthday. In Cambodia, it’s 23 per cent. In Laos, where the legal age to marry is 15, figures can be hard to come by, but, according to 2005 data from the United Nations, 20 per cent of women aged 15-19 were married, divorced or widowed, compared to 6 per cent of men.

Nuan says her parents worked hard to take care of their family, especially her father. He wanted Nuan to complete her secondary schooling and build a better life. But after her father passed away, Nuan dropped out of school. Her family, who were already living in poverty, struggled to make ends meet, leaving Nuan feeling pressured to find a husband and begin taking care of her loved-ones.

In union, out of school

In some parts of Bokeo, when a girl turns 14, she’s seen as mature and ready for marriage. Many parents encourage their daughters to marry early as a way to avoid the social stigma associated with out-of-wedlock pregnancies. But once a girl is married, she usually drops out of school.

Xieng, 20, is Nuan’s husband. The two were married when he was 17. They grew up together in the same community and knew each other at school. Now they have a 7-month old son, Somdeth, who is cared for by his grandparents while Nuan and Xieng work as farmers. Nuan says she would like to have a second child, a daughter, soon.

Rural realities

Girls living in poverty in rural areas are far more likely to be married than girls living in urban areas. Although child marriage affects girls and boys, the impact on girls is more pronounced and can be life-threatening. Girls who marry early usually have their first child at a younger age than those who marry later, says Tanushree Soni, gender specialist in Asia for children’s development organisation Plan International.

“This exposes girls to higher sexual and reproductive health risks. Girls are pressured to prove their fertility soon after marrying and they have little access to information on reproductive health, or the ability to influence decision making on family planning.”

Girls aged 15-19 years old are twice as likely as older women to die from childbirth and pregnancy-related complications, the leading causes of death for girls in this age group in developing countries.

“I’d like to have a second child, but not at the moment. For now, my focus is on supporting my younger sister, Hak, so she is able to continue going to school and working for her future,” says Nuan.

* Some names in this story have been changed to protect identities.

Plan International is a global children’s development organisation with programmes in 50 countries around the world promoting children’s rights. To find out more about Plan’s work on child marriage in Asia, click this link and follow them on Twitter: @PlanAsia