According to Marie Staunton, Chief Executive of Plan UK, early pregnancy – the nearly inescapable consequence of early marriage – is the leading cause of death for teenage girls in the developing world:

Early and forced marriage [is] one of the primary reasons young girls in the developing world end up in sexual relationships in the first place… Girls aged 15-19 are twice as likely to die in childbirth as women aged over 20, while girls aged 10-14 face five times the risk.  What’s more, babies born to mothers under 18 are 60 per cent more likely to die before their first birthday than babies born to older mums.

These sobering statistics suggest that parents who force their young daughters into early marriage could literally be sentencing their children, and their grandchildren, to death.  Plan UK works to end child marriage and the resulting high-risk pregnancies by implementing long-term community-development programs:

[Child brides] are triply disadvantaged by their age, their sex and their marital status.  Married girls with little or no schooling often have a limited awareness of their rights and simply lack the knowledge and power to negotiate safer sex. Girls who marry young are commonly isolated in their own homes, meaning they can’t access sexual health services that do exist.  Social stigma and a lack of age-appropriate services also stop them getting the guidance they need.

The Young Health Programme, a partnership of Plan UK, AstraZeneca and John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, aims to provide young women, including child brides, a safe place to learn about their rights and sexual health.  But, reproductive health education is not enough, says Staunton, “we need to address why a 12-year-old ended up in a marital bed”:

Poverty, gender discrimination, the impact of disasters:  All of these are tricky and sticky reasons why girls…become child brides.  Often girls in some of the world’s poorest countries are only valued in their roles as wives or mothers.  Some families even try to protect their daughters from the risks of pre-marital sex and pregnancy, by securing them a husband, and preserving their ‘honour’, as early as possible.

“Without tackling the root causes of early and forced marriages and gender inequality,” warns Staunton, “we cannot hope to end the horror of the fifty thousand teenage girls who die every year because of pregnancy or childbirth.”

READ MORE: Pregnancy: The leading cause of death for teenage girls in the developing world, By  Marie Staunton, The Independent (Tuesday, 10 July 2012).