When we speak of the issue of child wives, we generally associate such practices with countries such as India and parts of Africa. In Jamaica, however, a recently released report has highlighted local evidence of this practice, finding that one in every 10 Jamaican women is married or in a common-law union before her 18th birthday, with approximately one per cent doing so before the age of 15. The report, released by the Statistical Institute of Jamaica (STATIN), found that despite the low occurrence of legal child marriages in Jamaica, girls are often in a union at an early age, many of them in unions with men up to 10 years their senior.
In response to the report, a variety of possible explanations for the practice have been given by advocates and practitioners in the field, including: a lack of father figures; peer pressure; low self esteem and marriage as a means of economic survival. There is indeed merit in all of these contributing factors, and there are undeniably strong links that can be made between the incidence of poverty and the entry of adolescent girls into relationships with older men who are able to assist them and their families financially.
Importantly, one key discussion that also comes to the fore is the persistence of cultural values that often offer covert protection to both the young girls and the older men in such relationships; thereby obscuring the potential danger for the under-aged females in the unions. Responding to the report, child advocate Mary Clarke, pointed to the cultural silence that surrounds such illegal unions, stressing that the wide-scale failure to report such unions is a cause for concern.
The cultural silence surrounding this issue is indicative of wider patterns of silence with regard to sexual and reproductive health issues. Although ideas regarding men's right to ownership over ‘their' women in intimate relationships can be found across communities, the practice of cohabitation between under-aged females and older men is predominantly found in communities marked by poverty. In many instances, young girls become bargaining tools for economic improvement, placing them in relationships in which the power imbalances often affect them negatively.
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Factors such as age, economic dependence and a lack of decision-making power often come together to place the young girls in these unions at particular risk for domestic abuse, unwanted pregnancies, and HIV and other STDs. Based on the lack of power that these girls are often able to tap into, there is also evidence that they are particularly likely to suffer emotionally and mentally, resulting in low self esteem which further compromises their ability to demand and protect their sexual health rights.
Amidst calls for increased vigilance in reporting and penalizing the men involved in these unions, we must also be mindful that based on the economic reality of many of the affected girls and their families, such unions may in fact seem like the best available option. Inadequate education opportunities, cultural norms and values and limited support systems (both emotional and financial) inevitably play a role in shaping the environment in which these practices exist.
Any attempts to address, and ultimately eradicate this practice must be grounded on an understanding of this dynamic, or they may in fact put in place systems that do little to actually improve the girls' lives. An exploration of the complex nature of these relationships must lie at the center of these efforts so as to provide these girls and their families with viable options for their survival needs. Failure to do so will inevitably leave in place values and practices that will inevitably undermine any anticipated change for the better.