Thursday, August 12, 2010

Should Childhood be Relative?

The average lifespan in the US is about 74 years, longer for ladies. I think it is partly awareness of the probable length of our lives that allows us, both as a culture and as individuals, to determine when certain milestones in life, from finishing school to working to marriage to having children, should take place. It is also important to note that for most people their Healthy Life Years will continue well past the time they might consider starting a family.

But what if it wasn't so certain? To what extent would we change our expectations about what should happen and when? What if the average lifespan was 47, so you figure, give or take you'll probably live to be somewhere between 42 and 52. What would you do differently? I've been trying to ask myself these questions when moving around Angola, rather than reacting with shock at the sheer number of girls who have children or are pregnant. I have been told several times that by 14 or 15 girls will be encouraged to get married by their parents (remembering that if this is the average cited age, girls do marry earlier).  Then there's also infant and child mortality to consider, despite incredibly poor data collection, according to UNICEF, Angola has the second highest under-5 mortality ranking in the world, 220 children out of every 1,000 born will die before they reach the age of 5.  In realistic terms this means that women must have many children to ensure that several of them reach adulthood.

On one hand girls may not agree to these marriages, some might call them child brides, they are marrying below the age of consent and their husbands are almost always older.  I am having trouble reconciling how I feel about the whole situation. On one hand these girls deserve a childhood, an adolescence, during which they can grow up, go to school, be able to make good decisions before they have children of their own. On the other hand waiting until 30 just isn't a option. Because the lifespan here is so much shorter, every stage of life is shortened as well.

However, I cannot, in good conscience, say that I agree with encouraging girls to marry at 14, immediately bear children and leave school. The most telling point that comes out of a myriad of studies that I won't repeat here (the one linked to is just an example) is that the closest proxy indicator for the health of children is the years of education of their mother. Women with more years of education are more likely to have healthy children. So by either encouraging or forcing girls to leave school when very young, we're not only curbing their knowledge and perhaps future earning capacity, but also the health of their children and future generations.

Here we have looked at a program that allows children who have fallen behind in school, whether because of the conflict or working or poor academic performance to get "caught up". Each calendar year they complete two academic years, eventually aiming to integrate them with their same-aged peers. A striking "strength" of the program that was listed was that it allows girls to complete more years of schooling before marriage. True. It is a treatment but not a cure. Girls are more likely to go to school while pregnant and after giving birth because the program continues to welcome them. Also good.

But what would be the harm in waiting until 16? 18? There was a time when such marrying and childbearing ages were the norm in the West. In the current cultural standard here wait that long just isn't acceptable, something must be wrong with you if you haven't married by those ages. But as healthcare quality and access and longevity increases, as parents (who are also likely to have low educational attainment, if not be illiterate) and society begin to value girls and their education more, the average marrying age is likely to increase. But until then, meeting women my age who have given birth more times than they can count on one hand will never cease to amaze me. My own (and perhaps yours as well) extended adolescence seems like quite a gift and a privilege.

1 comment:

  1. From my wise friend Leah, hitting the nail on the head as always:

    my main concern with motherhood at such a young age (putting aside the issues I have and you raised with marriage at this age, including the lack of consent and abuse that often accompanies marriages with vast age disparities) is that the birthing process for a girl who has not yet matured into a woman can be straight up dangerous. They're called hips and a girl of 13 doesn't really have them yet. in a normal pregnancy in an older woman, during the nine months the woman's hips widen. this makes for an easier delivery as the baby has room to make his way through the canal. In a child of 13/14 who doesn't have a woman's build this can result in loooong births which may end in a baby getting stuck in the birth canal and can ultimately result in maternal death.

    The education of mothers is an interesting link isn't it? I think I read about that in half the sky or three cups of tea or some other nonfiction novel that argued for womens education. I think the idea is that, not only are girls older when they conceive, but they also are more likely to assert their voice in family planning decisions- when to have, how to space, etc. There is a program in one of the Asian countries (I want to say Cambodia, but don't remember) where they provide a stipend to girls who stay in school. This way they are bringing some money into the family so parents are less likely to say "I see no point in educating you and you'd be much more useful if you were working in the family business or got a job..."