According to the International Center for Research on Women, 57 percent of girls in India marry before the age of 18. The number is 75 percent in Bangladesh, and an astounding 82 percent in Niger. There are around 51 million girls worldwide, between the ages of 15 and 19, who are married. Child marriage is a practice that many people find distasteful, and rightfully so. Child brides remain at high risk for complications in pregnancy and childbirth, due to the fact that their bodies are not developed fully. They also suffer high rates of domestic violence, STDs, HIV, and poverty. Children born to child mothers tend to be premature and have a low birth weight.
Many groups in the world rightly fight against this atrocity by promoting legislation to enforce 18 as the minimum age of marriage. They promote education for girls as an alternative to marriage, teaching parents about how schooling can lead to better financial situations and poverty reduction. But some of these organizations, such as International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), while seeing many of the horrible problems inherent in child marriage and promoting some of these beneficial ideas, ignore the fact that one of the many reasons for opposing child marriage is that children and teenagers are not emotionally or physically ready to engage in the sexual activity and child-bearing that results from early marriage. Experts indicate that adolescents are not physically and emotionally fully developed until they are around 17 years of age or older. Even though they are developing sexually, it is unfair to force them, or encourage them, to plunge into a world of sex before they are fully mature and ready, physically, mentally and emotionally, for sexual activity within a healthy, adult marriage.
Why, then, does IPPF and its domestic sister organization, Planned Parenthood, not advocate sexual abstinence for adolescents? They insist that teens be given condoms and contraceptives, claiming that teens will have sex no matter what, so they might as well have “safe-sex”. This is ignoring the fact that 92 percent of teens and 94 percent of adults polled in the United States believe that teens should be strongly encouraged by society to remain abstinent until at least after high school, and that two-thirds of sexually active teens wish they had waited longer to have sex. According to IPPF, it is wrong for teenage girls to be married, but alright for them to “explore their sexuality,” as long as they and their partner use condoms? It is irresponsible for IPPF to fight against child marriage while ignoring the physical and emotional immaturity of the adolescents whom IPPF assumes will engage in so-called “free-sex.”
In essence, IPPF is telling adolescents, “You are not mature enough to be married, but you are mature enough to risk STDs, HIV, and pregnancy by having sex whenever you want. Oh, and if you do get pregnant, don’t worry, we’ll sell you an abortion.” It is a hypocritical message, and it is appalling that IPPF and other organizations promote teen sex when girls around the world are fighting for the right to be educated and to put off marriage and child-bearing until it is their decision. To promote the message that they are old enough to have sex only reinforces the existing cultural pressures forcing them into early marriage.
Organizations fighting against child marriage should instead keep their focus on education: The education of parents about the benefits of allowing their daughters to go to school. The education of boys and men about how child marriage will harm them, their wives and their children, and that chastity and fidelity within marriage are honorable aspirations. They need to educate girls about their inherent worth, that they deserve the right to choose when to marry. Girls need to hear that they have the right to go to school, to learn and to create a future for themselves before, and whether, they decide to marry.
These organizations should fight against child marriages. They should promote abstinence until adult marriage and fidelity within, which is the only situation that completely prevents teen pregnancy, STDs, and HIV.
No one in our modern world should force children to marry, or promote dangerous adolescent sexual activity. Our children and young adults deserve the dignity and respect that comes from abstinence until marriage and fidelity within that marriage. To encourage children otherwise is to degrade their inherent worth as children of God.
Caitlin DeMarco is an intern in the Ronald Reagan Memorial Internship Program at Concerned Women for America. She is assigned to the Beverly LaHaye Institute.