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Inbreeding – Cousin marriages and health disorders

It is estimated that at least 55% of British Pakistanis are married to first cousins and the tradition is also common among some other South Asian communities and in some Middle Eastern countries. But there is a problem: marrying someone who is themselves a close family member carries a risk for children, a risk that lies within the code of life, inside our genes. Communities that practice cousin marriage experience higher levels of some very rare but very serious illnesses known as recessive genetic disorders.

Such unions are seen as strong because they build on tight family networks and family events gets better because the in-laws are already related to each other and have the same family history. But the statistics for recessive genetic illness in cousin marriages is serious as British Pakistanis are 13 times more likely to have children with genetic disorders than the general population.

Cousin marriages

Cousin marriage is marriage between two cousins. This kind of marriage is highly stigmatized today in the West, but it does account for over 10% of marriages worldwide as it is common in the Middle East, where in some nations they account for over half of all marriages.

According to Professor Robin Fox of Rutgers University, it is likely that 80% of all marriages in history have been between second cousins or closer. It is generally accepted that the founding population of Homo sapiens was small, anywhere from 700 to 10,000 individuals. Rates of first-cousin marriage in the United States, Europe, and other Western countries like Brazil have declined since the 19th century, though even during that period they were not more than 3.63% of all unions in Europe. But in many other world regions cousin marriage is still strongly favoured: in the Middle East some countries have seen the rate rise over previous generations, and one study finds quite stable rates among Indian Muslims over the past four decades.

Cousin marriage has often been chosen to keep cultural values and ensure the compatibility of spouses, preserve familial wealth, sometimes via advantages relating to dowry or bride price. Other reasons may include geographic proximity, tradition, strengthening of family ties, maintenance of family structure, a closer relationship between the wife and her in-laws, greater marital stability and durability, ease of prenuptial negotiations, enhanced female autonomy, the desire to avoid hidden health problems and other undesirable traits in a lesser-known spouse, and romantic love.

United States

The United States has the only bans on cousin marriage in the Western world. As of February 2010[update], 30 U.S. states prohibit most or all marriage between first cousins together with other 6 states.

Cousin marriage was legal in all US states in the Union prior to the Civil War. However, according to Kansas sociology professor Martin Ottenheimer, after the Civil War the main purpose of marriage prohibitions was increasingly seen as less maintaining the social order and upholding religious morality and more as safeguarding the creation of fit offspring. By the 1870s, Lewis Henry Morgan was writing about “the advantages of marriages between unrelated persons” and the necessity of avoiding “the evils of consanguine marriage.” Cousin marriage to Morgan, and more specifically parallel-cousin marriage, was a remnant of a more primitive stage of human social organization. Morgan himself had married his mother’s brother’s daughter in 1851.

In 1846 the Governor of Massachusetts appointed a commission to study “idiots” in the state which implicated cousin marriage as being responsible for idiocy. Within the next two decades numerous reports appeared coming to similar conclusions, including for example by the Kentucky Deaf and Dumb Asylum, which concluded that cousin marriage resulted in deafness, blindness, and idiocy. Perhaps most important was the report of physician S.M. Bemiss for the American Medical Association, which concluded “that multiplication of the same blood by in-and-in marrying does incontestably lead in the aggregate to the physical and mental depravation of the offspring.”

These developments led to thirteen states and territories passing cousin marriage prohibitions by the 1880s. Though contemporaneous, the eugenics movement did not play much direct role in the bans, and indeed George Louis Arner in 1908 considered them a clumsy and ineffective method of eugenics, which he thought would eventually be replaced by more refined techniques. Ottenheimer considers both the bans and eugenics to be “one of several reactions to the fear that American society might degenerate.” In any case, by the period up until the mid-1920s the number of bans had more than doubled. Since that time, the only three states to successfully add this prohibition are Kentucky in 1943, Maine in 1985, and Texas in 2005. The NCCUSL unanimously recommended in 1970 that all such laws should be repealed, but no state has dropped its prohibition since the mid-1920s.

Europe

Only Austria, Hungary, and Spain banned cousin marriage throughout the 19th century, with dispensations being available from the government in the last two countries. Protestant, the Church of Sweden didn’t ban first-cousin marriage until 1680 and required dispensation until 1844. England maintained a small but stable proportion of cousin marriages for centuries, with proportions in 1875 estimated by George Darwin at 3.5% for the middle classes and 4.5 % for the nobility, though this has declined to under 1 % in the 20th century. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were a preeminent example.

The 19th century academic debate on cousin marriage evolved differently in Europe than it did in America. The first-cousin marriage was legal in ancient Rome from at least the Second Punic War (218–201 BC) to its ban by the Christian emperor Theodosius I in 381 AD in the west and until after Justinian (d. 565 AD) in the east.

Early Catholic marriage rules forced a sharp change from earlier norms in order to deny heirs to the wealthy and therefore increase the chance they would will their property to the Church.

Middle East

The Middle East has uniquely high rates of cousin marriage among the world’s regions. Saudi Arabia, have rates of marriage to first or second cousins that may exceed 50%, Iraq was estimated in one study to have a rate of 33%, and figures for Iran and Afghanistan have been estimated in the range of 30–40%. Though on the lower end, Egypt and Turkey nevertheless have rates above 20%.

All states in the Persian Gulf currently require advance genetic screening for all prospective married couples. Qatar was the last Gulf nation to institute mandatory screening in 2009, mainly to warn related couples who are planning marriage about any genetic risks they may face. The current rate of cousin marriage there is 54%, an increase of 12–18% over the previous generation. A report by the Dubai-based Centre for Arab Genomic Studies (CAGS) in September 2009 found that Arabs have one of the world’s highest rates of genetic disorders, nearly two-thirds of which are linked to consanguinity. Research from CAGS and others suggests consanguinity is declining in Lebanon and Egypt and among Palestinians, but is increasing in Morocco, Mauritania and Sudan.

Dr. Ahmad Teebi, a genetics and pediatrics professor at Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar, links the increase in cousin marriage in Qatar and other Gulf states to tribal tradition and the region’s expanding economies. “Rich families tend to marry rich families, and from their own – and the rich like to protect their wealth,” he said. “So it’s partly economic, and it’s also partly cultural.” In regard to the higher rates of genetic disease in these societies, he says: “It’s certainly a problem,” but also that “The issue here is not the cousin marriage, the issue here is to avoid the disease.”

Africa

Cousin marriage rates from most African nations outside the Middle East are unknown. It is however estimated that 35–50% of all sub-Saharan African populations either prefers or accept cousin marriages. In Nigeria, the most populous country of Africa, the three largest tribes in order of size are the Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo. Muslim Hausa practice cousin marriage preferentially, and polygamy is allowed if the husband can support multiple wives. Divorce can be accomplished easily by either the male or the female, but females must then remarry. Even for a man, lacking a spouse is looked down upon. Baba of Karo’s first of four marriages was to her second cousin. She recounts in the book that her good friend married the friend’s first cross cousin.

The Yoruba people are split between Islam and Christianity. A 1974 study analyzed Yoruba marriages in the town Oka Akoko, finding that among a sample of marriages having an average of about three wives. These included not only cousin marriages but also uncle-niece unions. Reportedly it is a custom that in such marriages at least one spouse must be a relative, and generally such spouses were the preferred or favourite wives in the marriage and gave birth to more children. Finally, the Igbo people of southern Nigeria specifically prohibit both parallel- and cross-cousin marriage, though polygamy is common. Men are forbidden to marry within their own patrilineage or those of their mother or father’s mother and must marry outside their own village. Igbo are almost entirely Christian, having converted heavily under colonialism

In Ethiopia the ruling Christian Amhara people were historically rigidly opposed to cousin marriage, and could consider up to third cousins the equivalent of brother and sister, with marriage at least ostensibly prohibited out to sixth cousins. A man marrying a former wife’s “sister” was seen as incest, and conversely for a woman and her former husband’s “brother.” Though Muslims make up over a third of the Ethiopian population, and Islam has been present in the country since the time of Muhammad, cross-cousin marriage is very rare among most Ethiopian Muslims.

South Asia

Attitudes in India on cousin marriage vary by region and culture. For Muslims it is acceptable and legal to marry a first cousin but for Hindus it may be illegal under the 1955 Hindu Marriage Act, though the specific situation is more complex. The Hindu Marriage Act makes cousin marriage illegal for Hindus with the exception of marriages permitted by regional custom. Cousin marriage is proscribed and seen as incest for Hindus in north India. In fact it may even be unacceptable to marry within one’s village or for two siblings to marry partners from the same village but in south India it is common for Hindu’s to marry cross cousins, with matrilateral cross-cousin (mother’s brother’s daughter) marriages being especially favoured. In Mumbai, studies done in 1956 showed 7.7% of Hindus married to a second cousin or closer in contrast to the northern city of New Delhi where only 0.1% of Hindus were married to a first cousin during the 1980s.

India’s Muslim minority represents about 12% of its population (excluding Jammu and Kashmir) and has an overall rate of cousin marriage of 22% according to a 2000 report. Most Muslim cousin marriages were between first cousins with a rate of 20%.

United Kingdom

There has been a great deal of debate in the past few years in the United Kingdom about whether to discourage cousin marriages through government public relations campaigns or ban them entirely. The debate has been prompted by a Pakistani immigrant population making up 1.5% of the British population, of whom about 55% marry a first cousin. There is evidence that the rate of cousin marriage has increased among British Pakistanis from rates in their parents’ generation. Most British Pakistani marriages are arranged, but these can be of two types: conventionally arranged marriages where the bride and groom have little or no say, and what some British Pakistanis describe as “arranged love marriages” where the bride and groom play an important role.

Other regions

In the East, South Korea is especially restrictive with bans on marriage out to third cousins, with all couples having the same surname and region of origin having been prohibited from marrying until 1997. Taiwan, North Korea, and the Philippines also prohibit first-cousin marriage. It is allowed in Japan, though the incidence has declined in recent years. China has banned it since passing its 1981 Marriage Law, yet there is a conspicuous lack of data on actual cousin marriage rates there.

Recent 2001 data for Brazil indicates a rate of cousin marriage of 1.1%, down from 4.8% in 1957. For example, in São Paulo in the mid-19th century the rate of cousin marriage apparently was 16%, but a century later it was merely 1.9%.

Social aspects of cousin marriages

People may think that cousin marriages are more common among those of low socioeconomic status, among the illiterate and uneducated, and in rural areas due to the dowries and bridewealths that exist, but some societies also report a high prevalence among land-owning families and the ruling elite: here the relevant consideration is thought to be keeping the family estate intact over generations.

In South Asia, rising demands for dowry payments have caused economic hardship and have been linked to “dowry deaths” in a number of North Indian states. The increasing number of cousin marriages in the West may also occur as a result of immigration from Asia and Africa and some observers have concluded that the only new forces that could discourage such unions are government bans like the one China enacted in 1981.

Genetics

In April 2002, the Journal of Genetic Counseling released a report which estimated the average risk of birth defects in a child born of first cousins at 1.7–2.8% over an average base risk for non-cousin couples of 3%, or about the same as that of any woman over age 40. In terms of mortality, a 1994 study found a mean excess pre-reproductive mortality rate of 4.4%, while another study published in 2009 suggests the rate may be closer to 3.5%. Put differently, first-cousin marriage entails a similar increased risk of birth defects and mortality as a woman faces when she gives birth at age 41 rather than at 30. Critics argue that banning first-cousin marriages would make as much sense as trying to ban childbearing by older women.

In Pakistan, where there has been cousin marriage for generations and the current rate may exceed 50%, one study estimated infant mortality at 12.7 % for married double first cousins, 7.9 % for first cousins, 9.2 % for first cousins once removed/double second cousins, 6.9 % for second cousins, and 5.1 percent among nonconsanguineous progeny. Among double first cousin progeny, 41.2 % of prereproductive deaths were associated with the expression of detrimental recessive genes, with equivalent values of 26.0, 14.9, and 8.1 % for first cousins, first cousins once removed/double second cousins, and second cousins respectively.

For example because the entire Amish population is descended from only a few hundred 18th century German-Swiss settlers, the average coefficient of inbreeding between two random Amish is higher than between two non-Amish second cousins. First-cousin marriage is taboo among Amish but they still suffer from several rare genetic disorders. In Ohio’s Geagua County, Amish make up only about 10 % of the population but represent half the special needs cases. Similar disorders have been found in the highly polygamous FLDS, who do allow first-cousin marriage and of whom 75 to 80 % are related to two 1930s founders.

A BBC report reported about Pakistanis in Britain where 55% of whom had married a first cousin and many children come from repeat generations of first-cousin marriages. The report stated that these children were 13 times more likely than the general population to produce children with genetic disorders, and one in ten children of first-cousin marriages in Birmingham either died in infancy or would develop a serious disability. The BBC story contained an interview with Myra Ali, whose parents and grandparents were all first cousins. She has a very rare recessive genetic condition, known as Epidermolysis bullosa which will cause her to lead a life of extreme physical suffering, limited human contact and probably an early death from skin cancer. Knowing that cousin marriages increase the probability of recessive genetic conditions, she is against the practice. Finally, in 2010 the Telegraph reported that cousin marriage among the British Pakistani community resulted in 700 children being born every year with genetic disabilities.

The increased mortality and birth defects observed among British Pakistanis may, however, have another source besides current consanguinity. Genetic effects from cousin marriage in Britain are more obvious than in a developing country like Pakistan because the number of confounding environmental diseases is lower. Increased focus on genetic disease in developing countries may eventually result from progress in eliminating environmental diseases there as well.

Public Health in Norway published in March 2007 a research on intermarriage in Norway. The report identifies both the prevalence of intermarriage and the medical consequences for the children. The analysis was done on the basis of data from the Medical Birth Registry, Statistics Norway, Population Register and the Cause of Death Register of data for all persons born in Norway from 1967 to 2005 because Norway is the only country in the world that keeps the statistic numbers between the parents of all born babies. These were the key findings:

Prevalence of intermarriage:

  • In Norway, the most widespread intermarriage can be found among people of Pakistani origin. In first-generation immigrants from Pakistan intermarriage is 43.9% of all children born of parents who are cousins, and the total intermarriage ratio is 54.4%.
  • Among the descendants of first generation immigrants from Pakistan, the proportion of cousin pairs 35.1%, and the total intermarriage ratio 46.5%. Interbreeding units are therefore somewhat lower than in the parental generation.
  • Intermarriage-shares seem to be heading down in the Norwegian-Pakistani population, both first generation immigrants and descendants.
  • Intermarriage is relatively common also among people with origins from Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Sri Lanka, Morocco and Somalia.
  • For people of Norwegian origin, intermarriage is very rare, but it used to be more common a few decades back. This particularly applies to second cousin marriages. In those of Norwegian origin is 0.1% of parental pairs cousins ​​and second cousins ​​0.4% (in the period from 1967 to 2005).

Medical risks of intermarriage
Intermarriage leads to increased risk of stillbirth, infant death and congenital malformations. In addition, there is an increased risk of death right up to adulthood among children of intermarried parents.
For children of cousin marriage is the increase of risk in the following order:

  • Stillbirth: 60%
  • Deaths during the first year: 150%
  • Congenital malformations: 100%
  • Deaths from the age of one year and up to adulthood: 75%

These findings are statistically reliable, and not the result of random variation.

The significance of intermarriage for public health
Since intermarriage is rare in the population as a whole, intermarriage does little for public health in Norway, however, it is a major cause of illness and death among children in the country groups where intermarriage is common.
One must always bear in mind that most children of intermarriage, marriage is healthy and completely normal. Illness and death affects only a small minority of them.

Jewish communities affected by Tay-Sachs

Tay–Sachs disease (TSD, also known as GM2 gangliosidosis or Hexosaminidase A deficiency) is an autosomal recessive genetic disorder. In its most common variant, known as infantile Tay–Sachs disease, it causes a relentless deterioration of mental and physical abilities that commences around 6 months of age and usually results in death by the age of 4. Tay-Sachs is caused by a genetic defect in a single gene with one defective copy of that gene inherited from each parent. The disease occurs when harmful quantities of gangliosides accumulate in the nerve cells of the brain, eventually leading to the premature death of those cells. There is currently no cure or treatment but the Tay–Sachs disease is rare.

Tay-Sachs disease was named after British ophthalmologist Warren Tay, who first described the red spot on the retina of the eye in 1881, and the American neurologist Bernard Sachs of Mount Sinai Hospital, New York who described the cellular changes of Tay-Sachs and noted an increased prevalence in the Eastern European Jewish (Ashkenazi) population in 1887. Research in the late 20th century demonstrated that Tay–Sachs disease is caused by a genetic mutation on the HEXA gene on chromosome 15. These mutations reach significant frequencies in several populations. French Canadians of southeastern Quebec have a carrier frequency similar to Ashkenazi Jews, but they carry a different mutation. Many Cajuns of southern Louisiana carry the same mutation that is most common in Ashkenazi Jews. Most HEXA mutations are rare, and do not occur in genetically isolated populations. The disease can potentially occur from the inheritance of two unrelated mutations in the HEXA gene.

Millions of Ashkenazi Jews have been screened as Tay-Sachs carriers since carrier testing began in 1971. Jewish communities, both in and outside of Israel, embraced the cause of genetic screening from the 1970s on and the increasing number of Tay–Sachs disease led Israel to become the first country to offer free genetic screening and counseling for all couples making Israel a leading center for research on genetic disease. Both the Jewish and Arab/Palestinian populations in Israel contain many ethnic and religious minority groups, and Israel’s initial success with Tay–Sachs disease has led to the development of screening programs for other diseases.

Tay-Sachs has sometimes created an impression that Jews are more susceptible to genetic disease than other populations. Sheila Rothman and Sherry Brandt-Rauf, of Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Society and Medicine, have criticized this emphasis on ethnic identity in the study of disease. When several breast cancer mutations were discovered in the 1990s, the TSD model was applied, both consciously and inadvertently. Researchers had initially focused on breast cancer cluster families, not on ethnic groups. But because thousands of stored DNA samples were available from Tay-Sachs screening, researchers were quickly able to estimate the frequency of newly discovered mutations in Ashkenazi Jewish populations.

Inbreeding in the Royal and Nobel families

The family relationships of royalty are usually well known to be highly inbreeded. Royal intermarriage was mostly practised to protect property, wealth, and position.

  • In ancient Egypt, royal women carried the bloodlines and so it was advantageous for a pharaoh to marry his sister or half-sister. Normally the old ruler’s eldest son and daughter (who could be either siblings or half-siblings) became the new rulers. All rulers of the Ptolemaic dynasty from Ptolemy II were married to their brothers and sisters, to keep the Ptolemaic blood “pure” and to strengthen the line of succession. Cleopatra VII (also called Cleopatra VI) and Ptolemy XIII, who married and became co-rulers of ancient Egypt following their father’s death, are the most widely known example of brother and sister marriage.

The family-tree of Charles II of Spain shows an extraordinary number of uncle-niece and cousin unions of varying degrees that can be seen on the picture.

Click at the picture for a larger image

  • Among European monarchies Jean V of Armagnac formed a rare brother-sister relationship. Also other royal houses, such as the Wittelsbachs had marriages among aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews. The British royal family had several marriages as close as the first cousin, but none closer.
  • The most famous example of a genetic disorder aggravated by royal family intermarriage was the House of Habsburg, which inmarried particularly often. Famous in this case is the Habsburg jaw/Habsburg lip/Austrian lip typical for many Habsburg relatives over a period of 6 centuries. The condition progressed through the generations to the point that the last of the Spanish Habsburgs, Charles II of Spain, could not properly chew his food.
  • Besides the jaw deformity, Charles II also had a huge number of other genetic physical, intellectual, sexual, and emotional problems. It is speculated that the simultaneous occurrence in Charles II of two different genetic disorders: combined pituitary hormone deficiency and distal renal tubular acidosis could explain most of the complex clinical profile of this king, including his impotence/infertility which in the last instance led to the extinction of the dynasty.
  • The most famous genetic disease that circulated among European royalty was haemophilia. Because the progenitor, Queen Victoria, was in a first cousin marriage, it is often mistakenly believed that the cause was consanguinity, however, this disease is generally not aggravated by cousin marriages, although rare cases of haemophilia in girls (though not including Victoria) are thought to result from the union of haemophilic men and their cousins.
  • Intermarriage within European royal families has declined in relation to the past. Inter-nobility marriage was used as a method of forming political alliances among elite power-brokers and these ties were often sealed only upon the birth of progeny within the arranged marriage. Marriage was seen as a union of lines of nobility, not of a contract between individuals as it is seen today.
  • Some Peruvian Sapa Incas married their sisters. The Inca had an unwritten rule that the new ruler must be a son of the Inca and his wife and sister. He then had to marry his sister (not half-sister), which ultimately led to the catastrophic Huáscar’s reign, culminating in a civil war and then fall of the empire.

Queen Victoria

Royal dyslexia
When we look at the Norwegian history, marriage between cousins was rare and attempted to be prohibited in 1687 but the exception was the royals. They married relatives to build alliances, and ensure values ​​and positions. It is not different from the today’s cousin marriages except the only difference was that the royal house had a stronger fundamental superstructure that was at the family’s superiority. Monarchical thinking assumes that your place in society is God-given and that your family is predetermined.

King Olav V and Queen Maud of Norway
To keep the heritage in their own hands, the Spanish Habsburgs started to marry more and more within the family. The result was that the lethal inbreeding within a few generations brought the male succession to destruction with 11 royal marriages in 200 years. 9 of these were intermarriages including two marriages between uncles and nieces and four between cousins. As a consequence of this, the Habsburgs suffered stillbirths and deaths of babies. Between 1527 and 1661 there was born 34 children and of these, 10 died before the age of 1 year. Another 17 died before the age of 10.

The Habsburgs last king, Carlos II, was born in 1661 and the Spaniards called him El hechizado, the enchanted. He had a large head and was relatively weak as a baby. He did not learn to speak before he turned four, and learned to walk when he was eight years old and stayed weak and very thin. His first and second wife claimed he was impotent and he would vomit and suffer from diarrhea. As a 30-year-old, King Carlos looked like he was an old man. He also couldn’t manage to bring an heir so the Halsburg Dynasty died with him in 1700.
Scientists have calculated that 25.4% of his gene variants were inherited in double dose and they believe he was hit by two genetic diseases that today are known as CPHD and distal renal tubular acidos (dRTA).

The Danish royal house was struggling with similar problems. Early in the 1800s did not King. Several diseases spread in the European royal houses of the 1800s and the British Queen Victoria’s descendants were affected by haemophilia resulting in her son Leopold death of the disease as 30-year-old. Her daughters, Princess Beatrice and Princess Alice brought the disease to the European royal houses.

Porphyria is another “royal disease” and the British king George III (1760 to 1820) was known as “Mad George” for his madness. Two professors of molecular genetics, Martin Warren and David Hunt of the University of London, examined in the book Purple Secret (1998) a thesis that George III’s illness was porphyria. They followed “Mad George” s genes down to today’s royals, and estimated that the Queen’s cousin William, who died in 1972, suffered from the disease. Also porphyria was brought further into the European royal families.
Norwegian Princess Astrid has been open to and told how she has experienced it to be dyslexic, like King Olaf was and the Princess’ five children also struggling with this problem.
In contrast, Swedish King Carl Gustaf, the Crown Princess Victoria and her brother Prince Carl Philip has been open with the disorder.

Swedish royal family

Camilla Stoltenberg of Public Health in Norway explains:
“If you inherit the gene from one parent, you may get a slight degree of the condition. Inherit it from both mother and father, the stronger the disposition, and then you can get a more serious disorder.” What then is the relationship between intermarriage and dyslexia?
“The chance that you get two identical copies of a gene is higher. This is also true for genes that predispose to dyslexia. And since dyslexia is probably conditioned by many genes, it is also a greater chance that you may have received two copies of several of the dysleksidisponerende genes,” she says.

Child Marriages – Robbing them of their innocence

Throughout the world, the problem of early, forced marriages of children is considered to be a violation of basic human rights. Child marriage is defined by when a child who is below the legal age (usually below the age 15) is married to an adult. Usually it’s almost a Young girl married to an older man. The second form of marriage is an arranged marriage where the parents of the child(ren) and the other person arrange a future marriage. Here, the two individuals who are promised to each other, does not often meet until the wedding ceremony which happens when they both are considered to be of a marriageable age.

Occurrence

It has been estimated that 49 countries around the world has a significant child bride problem, but the numbers are estimated to be higher because of the unregistered and unofficial marriages. UNICEF survey results of 100 countries shows that in developing countries, over than 60 million women aged between 20 and 24 was married before the age of 18. In the countries of Bangladesh, Central African Republic, Chad, Guinea, Mali, and Niger, more than 60% were found to have been married before 18. Despite sanctions on child marriage, more than 100 million children were expected to marry between 2005-2015.

Article 16.1 of United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women of 1979 (CEDAW http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/cedaw.htm)states that;

a) Men and women have the same right to enter into marriage.

b) The same right to freely choose a spouse and enter that marriage with their free and full consent.

Article 16.2 states: The betrothal and marriage of a child shall have no legal effect, and all necessary action, including legislation, shall be taken to specify a minimum age for marriage. CEDAW has not been ratified by seven UN member-states; the United States, Sudan, Somalia, Iran, Nauru, Palau and Tonga.

Although this practice is banned by many countries, there are still many children who are victims of practice. It is combined with culture and has many purposes. Some cultures use child marriage among different tribes, villages and families to secure political and other ties between them to prevent themselves from being assimilated. Other families use child marriage to gain financial ties with wealthier people to ensure their success. Every women and girl has the right to a healthy and just life but when violence of any kind occurs, the international community has the supreme responsibility to respond and transform norms and behavior that condones these human right violations.

How does child marriage affect girl’s futures?

No matter where child marriage occurs, it is regarded as violation towards the children with tiny voices. Parents choose to marry off their daughters early for a number of reasons. Poor families may regard a young girl as an economic burden and her marriage as a necessary survival strategy for her family and some see no value in girls compared to a boy. Others are concerned of their daughters might lose their virginity or get pregnant before marriage. Changing these views requires education and the right to refuse marriage. The parents think that marrying away the daughters protects them from the risk and danger of sexual assault and the husband cares of her as a male guardian.

In the rural villages of these countries many young girls are rarely allowed out of their homes unless it is to work in the fields or to get married. These uneducated girls are often married off at the young age of 11. Some families allow girls who are only 7 years old to marry. It is very unusual for a girl to reach the age of 16 and not be married.

Child marriage by region

Click at the image for a larger picture.

Europe

In France, 11% of girls are married before the age of 18.

Africa

Because of poverty, culture, tradition and conflicts makes child marriages widespread all over Africa. In many tribal systems, the groom has to pay a bride price to the bride’s family in order to marry her. In many parts of Africa, this payment happens in cash, cattle or other valuables but the amount decreases as the girl gets older. That’s why, the family’s wishes to marry the girl as early as possible, most of the times before puberty. Over half of the girls are sent away for marriage as the parents needs the bride price to clothe, feed and educate the rest of the family while a boy can gain education, employment and get married later.

According to many UN related reports made in Sub-Saharan countries, the incident of child marriages under the age of 15 is very high. This has resulted in health problems such as obstetric fistulae, prematurely, stillbirth, sexually transmitted diseases (STD), cervical cancer and malaria. In parts of Ethiopia and Nigeria, 50% of the girls are married as young as the age of 7. In parts of Mali, 39% of the girls are married before the age of 15 and in Niger and Chad; over 70% of girls are married before the age of 18.

Asia and South Asia

India

The status of the woman has been lower than the men for centuries and she has been regarded as the disrespected element of the society in many places. Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh tops list of child marriages by accounting 40% of these incidents a year. A total of 104 cases of child marriage were reported across the country in 2008, which is an 8.3% increase over the previous year’s figure.

The child marriage restraint Act, 1929 was passed during the British rule in pre-partition India that forbade a male younger than 21 and a female younger than 18 to get married. As South-Asia has the highest rate of child marriages in the world, India stands for 40% of the world’s child marriages according to UNICEF’s ”State of the World’s Children -2009”. In an effort to handle this problem, the states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh, laws has been made and passed to register all marriages in order to make them valid. According to”National Plan of Action for Children 2005,” (published by the Department of Women and Child development of India) a goal was set out to eliminate child marriages by 2010. As for the child restrain act, a child is a person who, if a male, has not completed 21 years of age and if a female, has not completed 18 years of age. In case of such incident, the parent or guardian concerned may be punished with a simple imprisonment which may extend to three months and a fine. Those who solemnize and give consent to the wedding ceremony face the same punishment. A male above 18 years and below 21, entering into wedlock with a child, shall be punishable with simple imprisonment which may extend to 15 days or with fine which may extend to Rs1,000 or both. A male above 21 years marrying a child shall be punishable with simple imprisonment which may extend to three months and shall also be liable to fine.

Afghanistan

It is believed that between 60 and 80% of marriages are forced marriages and occurs mostly in the rural areas. This deprives the girls from education and isolates them further.

Pakistan

Even though the minimum age for marriage is 18 for men and 16 for girls, child marriages are still widespread and still practiced.

Bangladesh

According to the”State of the World’s Children-2009” report, 63% of all women aged 20-24 were married before the age of 18. The Ministry of Women and Children Affairs has been and still is making progress to increase women and girl’s education and employment opportunities. To reach out to those in rural areas, an attempt to speak with the religious leaders and cooperate with them has shown results and is hoped to decrease the practice.

Middel East

In April 2007, the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) published a new study on child marriage in the world, “New Insights on Preventing Child Marriage: A Global Analysis of Factors and Programs.” The study included the latest ranking of the countries with the world’s highest incidence of child marriage. The chart included 68 countries and the country first on the list was Niger where 76.6% of women were found to have married before age 18, followed by Chad, at 71.5%. The proportion of child brides was above 60% in Bangladesh, Mali and Guinea and above 50% in Nepal, Mozambique, Uganda, Burkina Faso and India. Afghanistan does not appear on the list only because reliable facts are not available from that country. However, the incidence of child marriage in Afghanistan is believed to be quite high.

Yemen

49% of girls are married by the age of 18.

Saudi Arabia

Several human rights groups have documented high number of child marriages in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Saudi clerics have justified marriage of girls as young as the age of 9 and there is no laws defining the minimum age of marriage. The Saudi Ministry of Health on their side issued an official statement expressing its rejection of the marriage of minors, warning of repercussions, including adverse health and psychological effects on young girls. The statement gave details of related reproductive problems, increased incidences of early osteoporosis, in addition to a higher probability of high blood pressure, possibly leading to kidney failure, emergence of distortions of pelvic bones, also accounting for mental illnesses caused by emotional deprivation suffered by young girls after being taken away from parents, such as hysteria, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, personality disorders, and may even lead to addiction as a means of escape, as well as negative effects on children of minors, including delayed mental development.

United States

Laws regarding child marriage vary throughout the United States, though generally children 16 and over may marry with parental consent. Fewer than 16 generally require a court order in addition to the parental consent. The awareness of early forced marriage and sexual abuse of young girls in the United States was increased by the April 2008 rescue of numerous children living on a ranch owned by a polygamist sect in Texas. Children can also be married under the age of 18 with permission from their parents. In Texas, Alabama, South Carolina and Utah, girls can marry at the age of 14, in New Hampshire at 13, in Massachusetts and Kansas, as early as 12.

Until 2008, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints practiced child marriage through the concept ‘spiritual (religious only) marriages,’ as soon as girls are ready to bear children, as part of its polygamy practice and laws have raised the age of legal marriage in response to criticism of the practice. In 2008, the Church changed its policy in the United States to no longer marry individuals younger than the local legal age as the Church leader Warren Jeffs was convicted of being an accomplice to statutory rape of a minor due to arranging a marriage between a 14-year-old girl and a 19-year-old man in 2007. The state of Texas removed all 468 children from the ranch and placed them into temporary state custody. FLDS denied the charges. The charges were eventually dropped in court as there was no solid evidence in support of this, and it was determined that the state entered the ranch illegally.

South America

It is estimated that 29% of women aged between 15-24 were married before the age of 18 in Latin America and the Caribbean with Guatemala and El Salvador with the highest rates at 41% and 38%.

According to a report issued by the United Nations, these early marriage unions violate the basic human rights of these girls by putting them into a life of isolation, service, lack of education, health problems, and abuse. The UNICEF paper also states: “UNICEF believes that, because marriage under the age of 18 may threaten a child’s human rights (including the right to education, leisure, good health, freedom of expression, and freedom from discrimination), the best way to ensure the protection of children’s rights is to set a minimum age limit of 18 for marriage.

Negative effects on child marriages

Poverty

Girls living in the poorest 20% of households are more likely to get married at an early age than those living in the wealthiest 20%.

Education

Women with primary education are significantly less likely to be married or in union as children than those who received no education. In Zimbabwe for example, 48% of women who had attended primary school had been married by the age of 18, compared to 87% of those who had not attended school. Furthermore, once entering a marriage or union, women are much less likely to receive further education or get divorce.

Health

Premature pregnancies are common with young brides, and these cause higher rates of maternal and infant mortality.

Since many married adolescents are pulled out of school at an early age, they may be unfamiliar with basic reproductive health issues. Despite the large number of married girls, policies and programs often fail to address their vulnerability to HIV, sexual transmitted diseases (STD) or other reproductive health needs. Furthermore, while parents may see early marriage as a way to help keep their daughters from becoming infected with HIV, data indicates that 17-22 percent of 15-19 year old girls in Sub-Saharan Africa are living with HIV/AIDS as opposed to 3-7% for their male counterparts.

Poor health, early death and lack of education lead the list of major problems related to child marriages. Child brides have a double pregnancy death rate rather than women in their 20s because of their young age. Besides from having children in young age, girls are also exposed for damages and rupture in their reproductive organs and their children will end up being sicker and weaker ending in an early death. These young girls are also at an increased risk of chronic anemia and obesity. Other problems are listed as:

  • Limited social support due to social isolation.
  • Limited educational opportunities or no schooling options.
  • Intense pressure to become pregnant.
  • An increased risk of maternal and infant mortality.
  • Restricted freedom of movement and social mobility.
  • Early marriage that creates a lifetime of poverty
  • Statistically, child brides have a higher risk of becoming victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse and murder.

Abuse

Abuse is common in child marriages. Women who get married in a young age are more likely to be beaten or threatened, and more likely to believe that a husband might sometimes be justified in beating his wife. Some women end up being murdered as well for different reasons. In addition, children who refuse to marry or who choose a marriage partner against the wishes of their parents are often punished or even killed by their families in so-called ‘honour’ killings.

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