We openly talk about the importance of mental health in today’s society, particularly as poor mental health among adolescents is on the rise. But has it ever been in connection with child marriage – a traditional practice that still exists largely in developing countries?
Child marriage is a manifestation of gender inequality and discrimination against girls. Alarmingly, 1 in 5 women are married before their 18th birthday and over 12 million girls are married in childhood each year (UNICEF, 2019). To date most research has focused on the negative consequences of child marriage in terms of girls’ education, employment opportunities and physical health and safety. However, child marriage may also have a profound effect on the psychological and emotional wellbeing of women, an area which is often overlooked.
Being forced to marry at a young age can be a traumatic and stressful experience, as girls are often separated from their families and friends and are expected to take on adult responsibilities before they are emotionally or mentally ready. This can cause them to feel isolated and disconnected from their communities, and experience domestic violence and abuse. They may also experience a lack of autonomy, decision-making power and poor self-esteem leading to low self-worth. This can lead to a range of mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and other emotional and psychological difficulties.
In my recent paper, I examine whether there is a ‘causal’ relationship between child marriage and mental health of women using Indonesia as a case study. I find that marrying early, particularly by the age of 18 years, has a strong negative impact on women’s mental health. Specifically, they are 10 percentage points more likely to be depressed. I also show that restricted labour market mobility and poor physical health are potential mechanisms through which this occurs.
These findings highlight the urgent need for laws and policies targeted at ending child marriage. With nearly 650 million girls and women around the world being married as children, it is crucial that we take action to address this issue. The new policy in Indonesia of raising the minimum age at which girls can marry from 16 to 19 years is a positive step in the right direction. Implementing such policies would help to promote gender equality and improve the overall well-being of women.