Risky Nuptials

09.18.14 9:55 AM ET

The Sad Hidden Plight of Child Grooms

The consequences of early marriage on young girls are well known, but millions of underage boys are also married off each year—and there is little research on their fates.

Pannilal Yadev can’t remember much about his wedding other than the carriage he was carried in to meet his bride, 7-year-old Rajkumari. At the time he was a year older than she, and the two barely interacted for the next six years. By the time they moved in together he was 14, she was 13. She had already halted her education after their marriage, and when she became pregnant with the couple’s first child, Yadev dropped out of 10th grade.

“Recently I spoke to a school friend who told me he was going to engineering college. The news left me feeling ashamed and pitiful. If our parents had not forced us to marry at such a young age, our lives would be so different,” he wrote in a letter that was provided to The Daily Beast. “I would have liked to have gone to engineering school. If we were allowed to finish our educations, Rajkumari and I would have learned about family planning. Maybe I would have gone to college. Forcing children to marry doesn’t just push them deeper into poverty and threaten their health. It crushes their ambitions—whether they are girls or boys.”

Now 25, Yadev works for a new campaign called Tipping Point, which is collaborating with CARE USA to fight child marriage in Nepal. He and his wife have four children.

Across the globe, millions of boys and girls are betrothed so young they spend the majority of their adolescence already married. Each day, 39,000 girls are married off. They suffer sky-high maternal mortality rates, illiteracy, and a daily struggle against violence and poverty. The younger they’re married, the more risk they face and more unlikely it is they’ll succeed later in life.

But boys, too, are negatively affected by premature nuptials. They are often forced to drop out of school and take menial jobs to support their new family. This perpetuates the cycle of poverty that led to their marriage in the first place. Generation after generation will struggle to lift themselves out of this tradition.

In fact, 156 million men alive today were married as children, according to the most recent UNICEF data. Despite that massive figure, there is scant research or work being done to address the issue of child grooms, meaning there are tens of millions of young boys and men who are almost virtually invisible in research, advocacy, and on-the-ground prevention work.

“There is a very strong voice of men in the community saying, ‘Because of child marriage I don’t have good job, I’m a conditional laborer, I can’t have a good education.’ That’s why this is creating a strong background for the cycle of poverty,” says Sabitra Dhakal, who’s leading the Tipping Point movement in Nepal. “Child marriage is not only a bad practice for girls, it is really a bad practice for boys too.”

Formal statistics differ, but around half of all Nepali women will be married before turning 18, which is representative of South Asia as a whole. But the average age of marriage for both boys and girls in Nepal is between 6 to 8 years old, Dhakal says. Early marriage is mostly a formality, but girls traditionally leave school at that time. After puberty, around age 13, the second marriage takes place, after which the girl moves in with her husband’s family and they both typically halt their education.

These young men have few advocates acting on their behalf, both on a grassroots and international level, while the massive number of young girls married off each year has captured global attention. For decades, grassroots NGOs, and major multinational organizations have been toiling to relieve the plight of child brides, making slow but steady headway: A quarter of all women today were married as children, while that same figure was one-third in the 1980s, according to UNICEF.

There is little empirical data on how an early marriage affects young men. A variety of experts from the leading international organizations working to combat child marriage expressed a gap in knowledge about the issue of underage grooms. Neither UNICEF, Girls Not Brides, the Population Council, nor the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) had experts who could speak about the impact of marriage on boys.

“I think there are a lot of interesting questions about how arranged marriage, particularly child marriage, influences the grooms,” Jeffrey Edmeades, a social demographer for ICRW, wrote in an email. “I don’t know of any research that has specifically focused on this.”

Judith Bruce, a senior associate at the Population Council, explained: “Boys are not sexually initiated forcefully, they don’t get pregnant, and divorce is not the threat to them that it is to girls. But, obviously, being a boy groom is not a good plan.”

It’s true that young girls are disproportionately and more devastatingly affected by child marriage. The disparity in laws is stark: Girls under 15 can be married without their consent in 52 countries, while the same is true for boys in 23 countries.

The legal age for marriage differs in every country, and is almost always younger for girls than boys. In South Asia, 30 percent of 15- to 19-year-old girls are married, while just 5 percent of boys in that age range are. Girls often marry older males, and, depending on the geographical area, the men they marry can be much older—a situation that rarely occurs for child grooms.

In India, the legal age for marriage for boys is 21 and 18 for girls. A state health survey in 2012 found that more boys than girls were getting married before reaching the legal age of consent. In one district alone, Madhya Pradesh, 18.9 percent of males were married before legal age, compared to 12.5 percent of females.

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Yet a little more than 5 percent of boys are married between 15 to 19, while nearly a quarter of girls are wed during those years in India, according to a 2006 Population Council survey.

One local data collector in India told the study authors of a missing gap in the fight to curtail child brides: “There is also a need to focus on young boys and to convince them not to marry before 21 years. If boys agree to marry only when they are 21, then young girls will not get proposals from them till they are of the legal age. This will automatically raise the age at marriage.”

It’s these boys who will later serve to perpetuate the cultural norms that brought them into marriage in the first place. “They will be the advocates of patriarchy, traditional systems and behavior,” Dhakal says. “[What] we have in our community in present condition will be transferred—poverty and harmful practices will not be changed. They will live in condition from very young age, we need to struggle for establishing the right of children and right of girls, it will be harder, we need to change perception of living conditions of young people.”

In 2011, Foreign Policy documented the pandemic of early marriage in Afghanistan by following a young boy named Ozyr Khul before his wedding day. Unable to read, write or count, and completely opposed to the union he was about to enter into, Khul was entering into a vicious poverty cycle, as the writer described: “If he ever had a chance of breaking out of the grip of poverty that suffocates his village...it is gone now that he has a family to support.”

Immigrant communities in the West are also showing troubling numbers in terms of child grooms. In the U.K., forced marriages for men accounted for 14 percent of the total that the government deals with, but the unreported number is thought to be much higher. The victims are typically between 15 and 24.

In 2008, a young Turkish man living in Germany described the practice of forced marriage among immigrants to Der Spiegel, recalling his betrothal at age 16 and marriage a year later to his first cousin. “It was pure horror,” he said after escaping and seeking counseling.

These are just a few anecdotal examples of the practice, but if the numbers are to be believed, there are millions more untold stories from men who were married before legal age.

“They are also facing same problem and no one is considering their negative consequences,” Dhakal says. “The most important things we need to do is engage boys.” Tipping Point, which launched its project in May, will be targeting men and boys as a prevention strategy, and investigating how young grooms are affected at a local level.

In developing and Western countries alike, boys are more likely than girls to have parents who invest in and educate them. The reasons for child marriage run the gamut from cultural and religious to economic necessity, but running beneath all causes is an ingrained viewpoint of girls as property to be traded. But for families in the grip of poverty, it’s the responsibility of children of both sexes to provide economically and relieve their burden on the household as soon as possible.

Child marriage, for both genders, often signals the point at which education stops and the opportunity to leave a cycle of poverty is missed. An ICRW survey in Afghanistan in 2010 found that 71 percent of parents who married off their daughters were illiterate. The girls are ushered into their role as housekeepers and child bearers and the boys are tasked with providing for the family.

Dhakal says that despite the decades of attention paid to child brides, the root causes of child marriage have been ignored. About five years ago, activist groups realized their efforts weren’t advancing as fast as they should. While agenda after agenda had tackled the issue of child brides with female empowerment programs and age limit laws, girls were still getting married off by the millions.

“We worked with symptoms and problems—we didn’t try to dig out root causes of child marriage and gender-based violence. Without working with more than half population how can we make a big difference in a community?” Dhakal asks.

Now there are calls for a more comprehensive plan that pays due attention to the other half of the world. “We think child marriage and gender-based violence are problem of girls and we tried to empower women and girls only, we didn’t try to convince men,” Dhakal says. “Their position behavior and attitude are also the values of the community—but it took time to realize.” She believes it won’t be until men are targeted that child marriage will finally be eliminated.

“The child marriage issue is not an issue of only girls, not only an issue of communities—it’s a human rights issue, an issue of global civilization, and modern civilization,” Dhakal says.