South Asia home to highest number of child marriages: UNICEF

New Delhi, May 3 (EFE).- Nearly 290 million minors were married by their parents in South Asia before coming of age, marking the highest rate of such unions worldwide, in societies were girls continue to be seen as a burden and economic hardships result in them being sent off early, according to the latest UNICEF report.

This means that every one in four women in South Asia – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal and Pakistan – were married for the first time before turning 18. Three out of four of them gave birth as a teenager.

The practice has been sustained by effects of the pandemic, economic crises, conflicts and climate change, with families seeing a false sense of security for their children in marriage, the UNICEF said on Wednesday.

“Underlying all of this are some of the harmful gender norms that exist in the region, as girls are not valued as much as boys and so marrying a girl is seen as natural and is considered the norm,” Amanda Bissex, the UNICEF regional advisor on child protection, told EFE.

India is home to around 216.6 million child brides.

Unlike Indian boys – who are accepted with pride for continuing the family name and being a source of income – girls continued to be seen as a burden that the family needs to get rid of, if possible through a “good match.”

In contrast, the country has one of the lowest number of boys married before the age of 18, just around 3 percent, in the region.

In February, authorities in the northeastern state of Assam launched an operation to arrest more than 3,000 people involved in child marriages.

On Monday, Indian media reported the arrest of a 40-year-old man accused of marrying a 14-year-old, who was allegedly handed over to him after the family could not pay back a debt.

The UNICEF data on Bangladesh is staggering, with 51 percent of the girls being married off before the age of 18 – the worst rate in the region – with three out of 10 being paired with men at least 10 years older to them.

Tahmina, who was rescued by a Bangladeshi volunteer group, told UNICEF how she used to cry every day after being married, while her mother said the family’s poverty was the main reason behind getting the minor married.

Bangladeshi girls often become the victims of abuse and stalking, with little legal remedies at their disposal, which creates a feeling of insecurity in the family, Rafiqul Islam – a professor of social sciences at the Jagannath University – told EFE.

The climate crisis is another reason for the child marriage situation in Bangladesh remaining unchanged, as floods and other disasters often displace the families and some of them think it is better to get the girls married before moving.

A 543-day coronavirus lockdown also resulted in a high number of child marriages in Bangladesh.

According to the UNICEF report, the general percentages of child marriages are considerably high in the entire region: 51 percent in Bangladesh, followed by 33 percent in Nepal, 28 percent in Afghanistan and Bhutan, 23 percent in India, 18 percent in Pakistan, 10 in Sri Lanka and 2 percent in the Maldives.

“The value of women and girls in the workforce has been an important prevention factor for the Maldives compared to say Bangladesh or other countries in the region, (that are) affected by the economic crisis and conflicts,” Bissex explained.

In the case of Pakistan, UNICEF estimates around 19.4 million child marriages to have taken place.

In the Islamic nation, the practice is rooted in the conservative society, as traditionally marrying off the daughter as soon as she hits puberty is considered ideal to prevent sex before marriage, which is prohibited in Islam.

Child marriage affects the entire country, but is especially prevalent in southern Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan provinces.

Pakistan has a law that fixes the minimum age of marriage at 16, although activists and child rights groups have called for modifying the legislation, Khawar Mumtaz, the former chairperson of the national commission on the status of women, told EFE. EFE

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