Photo courtesy of SCMP

Child marriage, defined as any formal marriage or informal union between a child under the age of 18 and an adult or another child, continues to be a significant issue across South Asia, including Sri Lanka. Contrary to popular belief, child marriages are not confined to a single ethnicity or cultural background. The prevalence of child marriages among different communities is alarming, as indicated by data obtained from ECPAT Sri Lanka and the Department of Census and Statistics.

According to latest estimates by UNICEF, South Asia is home to 290 million child brides – the highest number in the world, accounting for 45 per cent of the global total. Despite remarkable headway in reducing child marriage in recent decades, progress remains slow and has been further hindered by the COVID-19 pandemic, economic shocks and conflict, a press release said.

“Despite commendable progress, much more needs to be done to end child marriage. The fact that South Asia has the highest child marriage burden in the world is nothing short of tragic,” said Noala Skinner, UNICEF Regional Director for South Asia ai. “Child marriage locks girls out of learning, puts their health and wellbeing at risk and compromises their future. Every girl who gets married as a child is one girl too many.”

A new child marriage study by UNICEF South Asia that included over 260 interviews and 120 focus group discussions across 16 locations in Bangladesh, India and Nepal found that:

Increased financial pressure due to the COVID-19 pandemic forced families to arrange marriages for their young daughters and reduce costs at home;

Girls being out of school due to the pandemic was one of the most prominent drivers of child marriage, despite efforts to involve children in remote learning;

Many parents viewed girls as a burden and saw marriage as the best option for their daughters who had limited options to study during lockdowns;

There were perceptions that girls might “misbehave” when not in school.

“Child marriage remains widespread in many countries, with harmful consequences on girls and the entire society,” said Mr. Björn Andersson, UNFPA Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific. “We must do more and strengthen partnerships to empower girls through education, including comprehensive sexuality education, and equipping them with skills, while supporting communities to come together to end this deeply rooted practice.”

According to the data from Sri Lanka, child marriages are prevalent among the Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim communities. In Sinhalese registered marriages, there were 62,630 marriages among individuals aged 15-19 and 2,200 marriages involving children under the age of 15. Among Tamil registered marriages, 9,396 marriages occurred among those aged 15-19, and 372 involved children under 15. In the Muslim community, there were 11,916 marriages among individuals aged 15-19 and 471 marriages involving children under 15.

To address the issue of child marriage effectively, it is crucial to dispel certain myths associated with this harmful practice. One common myth is that child marriage only happens to girls. However, according to UNICEF, 156 million men alive today were married before the age of 18. Child marriage is not solely driven by gender inequality but affects both boys and girls.

Another myth is that child marriage is a religious problem. However, child marriage is not linked to a single religion in Sri Lanka. It occurs across various faiths including Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and Catholicism, as well as among girls from other religious backgrounds.

Some people view child marriage as a private family matter that does not concern society. However, the consequences of child marriage extend far beyond the family unit. It is one of the most blatant manifestations of gender inequality worldwide and should concern all members of society.

There is also a misconception that child marriage is a cultural practice that should be respected. While child marriage has deep roots in certain communities and traditions, we must prioritize the wellbeing and rights of children over harmful practices. Protecting children from the negative consequences of child marriage should be a shared responsibility.

Several key factors contribute to the persistence of child marriages in Sri Lanka. Poverty plays a significant role, as mothers often migrate to the Middle East for domestic labor, leaving their daughters at home. This economic necessity forces many girls into early marriages. The lack of educational opportunities also contributes to child marriages, as girls who have limited access to education are more likely to rely on marriage as their only option.

The civil war that plagued Sri Lanka for many years also fueled child marriages. Parents living in conflict affected areas, particularly in the North and East, often felt compelled to give away their children in early marriage to protect and prevent forced recruitment by the LTTE.

The issue of pre-marital sex plays a role in child marriages. Parents may marry off their daughters to the offender to avoid shame or discrimination that may be brought upon their families. This practice fails to address the root causes and perpetuates the cycle of child marriage.

Child marriage has severe consequences for the individuals involved and society as a whole. One of the most pressing concerns is the increased risk of infant mortality. Children born to child brides are 60 percent more likely to die in their first year of life than those born to mothers over the age of 19.

Domestic violence is another significant issue faced by child brides. These young girls are often unable to negotiate safer sexual practices and are therefore at a higher risk of sexually transmitted infections. Child marriage also robs girls of their childhood, curtails their education and limits their economic opportunities. Early, frequent and high risk pregnancies put the health and wellbeing of child brides at great risk. Girls under the age of 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s and face a higher risk of pregnancy-related injuries such as obstetric fistula.

Addressing the issue of child marriage in Sri Lanka requires a multifaceted approach. It is essential to raise awareness among communities about the harmful consequences of child marriage and challenge the myths surrounding this practice. Efforts should be made to provide educational opportunities for girls, alleviate poverty through social and economic interventions and strengthen child protection mechanisms. Engaging religious leaders, community influencers, and policymakers is crucial to ensure that child marriage is no longer tolerated.