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Early marriage link with poorer health for women

Early Marriage b
Getting married before they reach 18 lowers women’s reports of how healthy they are and stops their education, shows research by Brunel Business School.

Women and girls who wed before their 18th birthdays find themselves in poorer health, less well educated and already less satisfied with life before they got married than their peers who married at older ages, the study finds.

This doesn’t mean getting married early directly makes life less satisfying, but it's tangled up with things being tough from a young age.

“Help for these girls needs to start before they get married because the damage to their lives in terms of lower life satisfaction is already apparent at age 12,” said Prof Shireen Kanji at Brunel University London.

Ending child marriage by 2030 is a United Nations Sustainable Development Goal and would be a step towards global gender equality. But progress is poor, partly because of poverty – poor families often think educating girls or delaying marriage costs too much.

The team, including Birmingham Business School, King’s Business School and Norwich Business School, used the Young Lives survey, which tracks the lives of 12,000 women and girls in Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam. They focused on India, where 30% of the world’s early marriages are made. India’s strong, patriarchal marriage traditions lead its women and girls to marry early, before they turn 18. Sex before marriage is highly stigmatised, which makes parents want to marry off their daughters early.

Early marriage, of itself, lowers how healthy women and girls say they feel, said the paper in The Journal of Development Studies. Their worse reported health is likely to be linked to giving birth earlier in life amid poor medical facilities and girls giving birth at home – both riskier for health. Marrying early also means an earlier end to education.

Girls in rural areas from poor and less wealthy households are more likely to marry early. Most of the girls who get married early live in rural areas – this applies to 91% of them, while while only 9% are from towns and cities. This compares with 77% of the girls overall living in rural areas and 23% in urban areas. The dowry system, which incentivises poor families to marry their daughters early to avoid rising costs, helps explain this. Families also tend to follow the marriage practices of their community, so intervention to change early marriage also has to work at the community level.

“Girls who marry early suffer a decline in their self-rated health, mostly linked to early fertility – over which they have little say,” said Prof Kanji, an expert in gender inequality at Brunel Business School. “The findings illustrate the complexity of early marriage. It negatively affects health and education. But in their particular circumstances, it does not necessarily lower life satisfaction, although these girls consistently suffer from lower life satisfaction than other girls.”


Image: Gokul Barman