I will begin by voicing your unspoken rebuttal: child marriage is not a sickness that significantly afflicts the Caribbean. And while I will concede that in its purest form, child marriage – a formal union involving a boy or girl under the age of 18 – is not very prevalent across the region, I would highlight that a subtle version of it is: early unions, known across the region by a variety of names, including ‘common-law’, or ‘visiting relationships’. Child marriage and early unions (CMEU), therefore, refer to any formal or informal union involving a girl or a boy under the age of 18.

While CMEU affects both boys and girls, the data show that girls are disproportionately affected. Estimates from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) reveal that in 2019, 25 per cent of women in Latin America and the Caribbean, ages 20-24 years, had been married or in a union before age 18, according to the 2020 State of World Population Report (SWOP). The data further reveal that for the period 2005 to 2019, the prevalence of child marriage by age 18 in Jamaica was eight per cent, compared with 11 per cent in Trinidad and Tobago, 29 per cent in Barbados and 34 per cent in Belize. Even as I pen this piece, I remain committed and confident that our collective work will help to revise those figures downwards, until zero child marriage and zero early unions are achieved.

Child marriage – in all its forms – is one of the harmful practices highlighted in the 2020 SWOP report produced by UNFPA, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency. As outlined in the report, child marriage and early unions are hostile to the health, economic and developmental well-being of the girl, the woman and the country, subverting strides towards sustainable development.

CMEU AND GENDER-BASED VIOLENCE

There is a strong correlation between early unions and intimate partner violence. The Women’s Health Survey 2016 Jamaica found that women and girls who entered a live-in partner relationship under the age of 19 or cohabited at a younger age were at a greater risk of intimate partner violence and other forms of gender-based violence (GBV). Child marriage and early unions perpetuate gender-based violence because they are characterised by spousal age gaps, power imbalances, restricted female autonomy, and feminine and masculine norms that accept and justify intimate-partner violence.

CMEU, EDUCATION AND THE ECONOMY

Child marriage and early unions are closely linked to higher levels of fertility and the perpetuation of poverty across generations. Early unions frequently result in adolescent pregnancy, which too often leads to the interruption of girls’ schooling. Although I fully acknowledge and support the existence of programmes across the region that facilitate re-entry to school after delivery, adolescent pregnancy nonetheless jeopardises girls’ future education and employment opportunities, and by so doing, undercuts the development of a productive, skilled workforce, with a direct bearing on the health of an economy.

CMEU AND HEALTH

Early childbearing poses several health risks for adolescent mothers and their babies. According to the World Health Organization, pregnancy and childbirth complications are the leading causes of death among girls age 15–19 years globally, and babies born to mothers under 20 years of age face higher risks of low birth weight, preterm delivery and severe neonatal conditions. Furthermore, in some settings, rapid repeat pregnancy is a concern for young mothers, as it presents further health risks for both the mother and the child.

UNFINISHED AGENDA

The examples highlighted here are but a few ways in which child marriage and early unions adversely and disproportionately affect the health, education, economic outlook and safety of girls and women, without whom no society can attain sustainable development. Indeed, the programme of action of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) recognised women’s empowerment and equality as a precondition for securing the well-being and prosperity of all people.

In 2019, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the ICPD, representatives from governments, grass-roots organisations, development agencies and the private sector committed to ending gender-based violence and harmful practices such as these. We have already gained momentum in the region, with Trinidad and Tobago officially outlawing child marriage in 2017, and with the launch of the Road Map to End Child Marriage and Early Unions in Belize on October 9, 2020. Nevertheless, there remains work to be done, and now is the time to push harder to eradicate child marriage and early unions.

Alison Drayton is the representative and director of the United Nations Population Fund Sub-Regional Office for the Caribbean. The State of World Population Report is available at www.unfpa.org/swop . Please send feedback and comments to jamaica.office@unfpa.org.