Fewer Young Girls Getting Married Before 14 in South Asia, Study Says

India, Pakistan and Bangladesh now have fewer rates of child marriages than in the past, says a new study. However, marriage rates of girls aged 16 and 17 have remained unchanged in India and Pakistan while in Bangladesh the rate has increased by 36 percent.

For the study, the researchers analyzed the available data on health and nutrition from India, Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

They found that marriage of girls aged 14 declined in all countries between 1991 and 2007 with 45 percent decline in Bangladesh, 35 percent in India, 57 percent in Nepal and 61 percent in Pakistan.

"There is a global effort to eliminate girl child marriage. Our findings are heartening in terms of eliminating the practice among very young girls, but not among older girls. There needs to be a greater focus on prevention of marriage among later adolescents. If we cannot impact reduction of marriage in this age group, we'll continue to see inadequate change on reduction of girl child marriage as a whole,” said Anita Raj, PhD, professor of medicine in the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine and lead author of the study.

The marriage rate of girls above 16 did not change in any country and in fact increased in Bangladesh by 36 percent.

Societal norms rather than laws are responsible for this trend, the researchers say.

“Pakistan has a legal age of 16 for marriage while in India, it is 18, but the percentage of females married as minors is greater for India than Pakistan, so we do not feel law has as much impact as social norms,” she said.

Many religious festivals are used as an excuse to get young girls married. Some families wait for the girls to turn 18 to get their marriages registered. This puts the girls at a disadvantage, if their spouse dies or decides to leave them before they become adults.

According to a United Nations Children’s Fund UNICEF) report, globally 36 percent of women aged 20-24 were married before they reached 18 years of age.

The prevalence of child marriages is high in sub-Saharan regions with almost 77 percent of women getting married before 18 years. In Bangladesh this rate is 65 percent, the report says.

Early marriages result in maternal or infant mortality, high risk of unwanted pregnancies, HIV/AIDS. According to a study, early pregnancy can result in infant malnutrition and even death. There are reports of young girls in active labor who have to be about how reproduction works.

UNICEF recommends that girls be kept at school as educated girls are less likely to marry early.

"There have been rigorous evaluations of interventions in Ethiopia and Malawi aimed at retaining girls in schools, with the result of delayed age at marriage. We need better understanding of the degree to which girl education can reduce risk for early marriage among girls in South Asia,” said Raj and colleagues.

Nujood Ali, 10, from Yemen became the face of the fight against child marriages when she became the first Yemeni girl to win a divorce. She was married to a man three times her age.

The present study is published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.