Fewer girls under 14 are getting married in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan, with sizable declines seen in each nation, according to a study released on Tuesday that suggests positive health gains for young women in South Asia.
In Bangladesh, for example, about 34 percent of women reported being married by age 14 in 1991 and 1994. By 2005 and 2007 that number had fallen to about 19 percent.
At the same time, marriage rates for girls aged 16 to 17 stayed about the same, except for an increase of about 36 percent in Bangladesh — a country where marriage for girls under 18 is generally more common.
“The decrease for the youngest age group is dramatic, but for the oldest, we’ve got nothing,” said Anita Raj, the study’s lead author and a professor at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine.
Raj and her colleagues reported the findings in a letter to the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
For their study, the researchers analyzed surveys taken from 1991 to 2007 in the four countries. For marriage rates, they looked at whether 20-to-24-year-old women reported being married before their 18th birthday.
In India, the marriage rate for girls younger than 14 dropped from about 10 percent from 1991 to 1994 to about 6 percent from 2005 to 2007. Pakistan saw the rate for married girls under 14 fall from about 6 percent to a little less than 3 percent over the same period.
Raj said the declines may be explained by more encouragement for girls to complete their education before marriage. Students in those countries typically graduate from high school at the age of 15 or 16.
Bangladesh, India and Nepal all ban marriage before the age of 18, while Pakistan’s minimum age is 16. However, Raj said those laws are largely ignored, especially in rural areas.
Marrying too young is an issue because it is associated with many health concerns, including complications from pregnancy and physical abuse.
Teen mothers are at a higher risk for pregnancy-induced high blood pressure and delivering babies before 37 weeks and with low birth weights, said Monica Johnson, a women’s health nurse practitioner at the Barnes-Jewish Hospital’s teen pregnancy center in St Louis, Missouri.
Teens are also at risk for postpartum depression, Johnson said, adding that “with adequate prenatal care and emotional support, a lot of those teen moms do not experience the risks.”
However, in a previous article Raj reported that the poorest and least-educated girls are at the greatest risk for an early marriage.