By Alyssa Cadice
Where is Fatema Alkasem? The Dutch government has been grappling with this question since the nine-months pregnant Syrian refugee went missing from Ter Apel asylum center three months ago. She fled shortly after the center’s outright refusal to reunite her with her 24-year-old husband. The Netherlands’ denial of family reunification for an expecting mother appears to violate basic human rights and governmental protocol; however, the Dutch government took this stance since Fatema is only 14 years old.
Upon extending asylum to Syrian refugees, the Netherlands has worked to combat the issue of child marriage amongst its migrants. In the eyes of The Hague, Fatema Alkasem was not a wife, but a victim of a de facto violation of human rights. In international law, child marriages are perceived as blatant examples of the violation of girls’ rights. However, in Syria and many other countries, child marriage remains a prevalent practice.
Because changing cultural practices is often a painstakingly gradual process and making the human rights case is not always enough, an effective way to combat the prevalence of child marriages is to expose a simple reality: child marriage is bad economics.
The logic is simple; the cycle is self-reinforcing. When forced to marry at a young (and often prepubescent) age, many child brides “drop out at the very point when education can guide them through the very vulnerable period of adolescence.” Not only do these girls lose the opportunity to develop the skills and knowledge necessary for a professional career, but they also lose the sense of increased self-worth seemingly intrinsic to continued education. With this lack of opportunity, gender inequality is perpetuated for subsequent generations, as research demonstrates that “mothers with little education are less likely to keep their own children in school, because they themselves are less likely to be aware of benefits of school or to the value of education if they have not completed it themselves.”
An effective method to empower girls is to discourage child marriage through the promotion of continued education, as a lack of education is one of the most influential factors serving as basis for gender subordination and, consequently, women’s economic alienation.
The discontinuation of education that results from child marriage serves as a structural base of stagnant economic development. The economic participation of women and their integration into the national workforce is necessary for widespread poverty alleviation and comprehensive economic development. In the developing world, no country can squander any untapped resource. The exclusion of women from both the workplace and the market remains the greatest barrier to accelerating domestic economic development. The continued marginalization of women will only perpetuate economic inferiority until the potential fiscal power of fifty percent of the population is realized and thereafter utilized.
India serves as a compelling example, demonstrating the importance of women’s economic participation: states in India with the highest percentage of women in the workforce over the past five years experienced the fastest growth and largest poverty reduction. Meanwhile, lowering the high instance of child marriage in India has been pursued by the Indian government through progressive legislation. Over the past twenty years, the rate of child brides under the age of 14 in India decreased by 35 percent. Inversely, both the rates of women’s workforce participation and of domestic economic development have rapidly increased.
Because the economy is a multifaceted force that is influenced by a variety of social and institutional factors, a high rate of child marriage cannot be labeled as the primary factor hindering a country’s economic development. The prevalence of child marriage is an effect of larger social issues such as gender discrimination and female subordination that themselves hinder economic growth. Still, child marriage continually serves as a practice that undeniably jeopardizes the future advancement of women in the developing world. Rates of child marriage will only be addressed when the exclusion of women from the economy is understood to be detrimental to future development.
The countries with the highest rates of child marriage—Niger, Chad, Central African Republic and Bangladesh—also have some of the world’s lowest GDPs. There is a clear correlation between child marriage and persistent poverty, and women’s absence from the workplace perpetuates poor (or even nonexistent) economic growth. Recognizing the relationship between child marriage and economic stagnation can be an important tool to push governments to enact greater measures to end the practice.
Alyssa Cadice is an undergraduate student research volunteer at the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security. She is a second year student in Georgetown College, double majoring in Government and Spanish.