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Policy & Politics
Child Marriage Puts Girls Worldwide at Risk of HIV/AIDS, Early Pregnancy; Ill. Sen. Durbin Drafts Legislation

December 9, 2004

Child marriage -- which affects about 51 million girls in developing countries worldwide -- puts women at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS or developing health complications from becoming pregnant at an early age, the Chicago Tribune reports. Girls who are married at a young age and become pregnant before their bodies are prepared to endure pregnancy and delivery may experience obstetric fistula. The condition, caused by ruptured tissue in the birth canal, can lead to continuous and uncontrollable leakage of feces and urine. Girls who develop obstetric fistula often are shunned by their families and communities because of the stigma attached to the condition, according to Geeta Rao Gupta, president of the International Center for Research on Women. About 100,000 new cases of obstetric fistula occur annually among girls, and about two million women worldwide are affected, according to the Tribune. Child marriage also can put young women at risk of contracting HIV. Girls often are married to older men, and the "unequal balance of power" makes young women "less able to negotiate the use of condoms" to protect against infection, according to the Tribune.

Economic Impact
Child marriage -- which is "common" in India, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa -- has "negative and lasting" consequences for women's health, education and overall economic development, Rao Gupta said, the Tribune reports. The practice "perpetuates poverty" because girls stop going to school when they get married and subsequently miss out on "economic opportunities," Rao Gupta said, according to the Tribune. Studies show that the children of educated women are more likely to be educated and are healthier than the children of less-educated women, according to Rao Gupta. Early marriage and pregnancy also can limit young women from participating in society, according to Rao Gupta. "She is not able to feed her children, not able to engage in her community," Rao Gupta said, adding, "What we are trying to do is encourage economic growth and equity in society, and both those things are negatively affected by child marriage."

After learning of the "long-term ramifications" of child marriage, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) drafted legislation aimed at "curbing the practice in the developing world," the Tribune reports. Durbin currently is seeking a Republican co-sponsor for the bill, which he plans to introduce in January, according to Joe Shoemaker, Durbin's press secretary. One of the bill's provisions directs the secretary of state to develop a "comprehensive" three-year plan to prioritize in foreign aid programs that focus on adolescent health, delaying marriage among adolescents and first pregnancies among married adolescents, according to the Tribune. Durbin said, "If we are to promote the economic and social development of all the world's children, we must work to give girls a chance to grow up before they marry." He added, "I believe that you can tell the most about the potential future of a country by asking one simple question: How do they treat their women and girls? If they hold them back, that country is likely to struggle. If they fully include them and treat them as equals, that country is likely to advance much more rapidly" (Lauerman, Chicago Tribune, 12/8).

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