Nearly half of girls in South Asia marry before their 18th birthday as children in the region continue paying the price of persistent inequality, according to a UNICEF report released Thursday.
The UNICEF report said that child marriage is pervasive in South Asia even though most countries in the region have a legal marrying minimum age of 18. Before the age of 18, 46 percent of South Asian girls are married, while 18 percent are married before age 15. The highest rate of child marriage was in Bangladesh, where two-thirds of girls are married before age 18, followed by India and Nepal.
The problem is rooted in poverty and social norms, with parents marrying their daughters early "because they see it as the `done thing' and because they fear the social sanctions and moral judgments they would face if they refused to follow this practice," the report said.
UNICEF said it is paramount to enhance education access for girls and to provide economic support to counteract the financial motives for child marriage. It also called for establishing support networks for girls, pointing to a remote mountain district in Nepal where clubs for women and children have raised awareness of child marriage and even intervened directly with parents who planned to marry their girls off.
UNICEF also called for increasing child birth registration, saying proof of age can help protect against child marriage, along with child labor and under-age military recruitment. While child birth registration has increased in the region, more than 60 percent of children — about 100 million — do not have their births registered, the report said.
The report was released to commemorate 25 years since the 1989 U.N. adoption of the Convention of the Rights of the Child. It pointed to some improvements over the past two decades as South Asian government adopted policies to protect child rights.
The prevalence of children with stunted growth in the region dropped from more than 60 percent in 1990 to 38 percent in 2012 as nutrition improved, the report said. Still, the report said regional averages mask disparities, with stunting far more pervasive among children from poor families, rural areas and oppressed ethnicities.
It said more than 2 million South Asian children die before their fifth birthday of preventable causes, and nearly 38 percent of children have chronic malnutrition.
The Associated Press