Romas is pictured with her baby son Seiha.
©UNICEF Cambodia/2016/Ream Rin
Ratanakiri, Cambodia, March 2017 – In a small house in a traditional rural Cambodian village, a teenage girl carries a tiny baby and smiles at the UNICEF team that has come to visit her family.
All seems content in this typical home where 15 year-old Romas Linda lives with her parents and two younger twin sisters. The family resides in a village in Ratanakiri province, located in the north-eastern part of Cambodia.
Despite her young age, Romas shows an intuitive maternal bond to the newly-born infant. This is because the baby boy she dotes on is actually her son – the result of her marriage at the age of 13. Romas comes from the Jorai ethnic community. She married her husband Sok Chantha two years ago.
This marriage took place before she even reached puberty, when her husband was just 17 years old. Their baby is now six months old.
Romas said the migrant lifestyle of her parents in their search for work was one of the reasons she married so young and abandoned her schooling.
Reflecting on her life, she said: “One day, a friend gave me a phone number and told me that a boy loved me so much.
“I made a call then just to say hello to him. A few days later he came to visit me frequently and we felt really in love and agreed to get married. That time I was about 13 years old.
“I married my husband because I felt bored and stressful when I did not have any one to take care of me. Sometimes when my parents went out I slept only with my two young sisters. Other times when my mother was not in, I went to sleep over at my neighbours’ house”.
In Cambodia, the legal age for marriage without parental consent is 18 and the legal age for marriage with parental consent is 16 for both genders.
However, the traditional practice of marrying off children before they are 18 is still widely practiced especially among ethnic groups and without authorization from the commune – as in Romas’ case.
This influence of community culture and social norms plays a strong role in teenage marriages for both girls and boys in Ratanakiri province.
Marrying at a very early age is equated with girls having value and being ‘beautiful’, ‘good’ and ‘modern’. The community often discriminates against older girls and unmarried women and men tend to view girls over the age of 18 as being too old to marry.
Romas’ twin sisters are 10 and currently study at grade one level. Their marital destiny is in the distance, but Romas is indicative of the fate of many girls in the community who have dropped out of school, got married and given birth at a very early age. Significantly, Romas’ mother was also a child bride who married at the age of 14.
Child marriage has a multifaceted and profound impact on children’s lives, affecting their health, education, psychological development, social life, relationships and increased risk to future adversities.
The majority of teen brides do not receive any information about sexual and reproductive health, family planning, or childcare before they become pregnant which adds an extra dimension to the complexities of motherhood.
If a mother is under the age of 18, her infant’s risk of dying in its first year of life is 60 per cent greater than that of an infant born to a mother older than 19. Even if the child survives, he or she is more likely to suffer from low birth weight, under nutrition and late physical and cognitive development.
In Cambodia, many girls living in rural areas say they face pressure to quit school to help their own, or their husband’s families with farming or domestic chores. This lifestyle exposes them to a higher risk of complicated pregnancies and sexual assault.
It also has a life-changing impact on their future as they are forced into social isolation, with virtually no opportunities for career and vocational advancement – which passes on poverty to the next generation.
Although the country’s overall fertility rate declined between 2010 and 2014, the adolescent pregnancy rate rose from eight to 12 per cent. Rural girls are also twice as likely to become pregnant.
In Romas’ case, she became pregnant at the age of 14. During her pregnancy, she had just one health check-up at the district referral hospital where she delivered her son.
“When I was pregnant, I went there to check my health and [the] health officer gave me some medicines (iron foliate acid) but I couldn’t take as I terribly vomited.” she said.
After the delivery of her son, Romas stayed as an in-patient in the hospital for five days as she had high blood pressure.
Since this treatment, she has never returned to the hospital for a health check-up. Her baby boy Seiha has not had the normal routine immunisations scheduled for a baby and to date he has only received one of three vaccinations an infant of his age should be given. However, he was exclusively breast-fed which is a health bonus.
Another important issue is the fact Seiha doesn’t have a birth certificate yet. A child who is not registered at birth is in danger of being shut out of society and denied the right to an official identity, a recognized name and a nationality.
Romas said: “I am very busy with taking care of my son and my two younger sisters and I don’t have time yet to go to the commune office to register the birth of my son. I have been through difficult situations.” she added.
Her father was killed in a road accident. Her mother remarried in the hope of giving her family security but this relationship failed, so she has remarried for a third time.
Analysis of administrative data from Keh Chong Health Centre in Borkeo district during the first 10 months of 2016 revealed that 22 per cent of child birth deliveries were from girls aged 13-18 years old, indicating a high rate of teenage pregnancies in this area.
Additionally, in 2015, UNICEF conducted a household survey in the O’Chum district of Ratanakiri of 80 mothers with children under the age of five and this disclosed that 59 per cent of mothers got married before the age of 18.
This high prevalence of child marriage confirms findings in the 2014 Cambodia Demographic and Health Survey which identified a higher prevalence of adolescent marriages in rural or remote geographic locations, ranging from a high of 36 per cent in Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri provinces.
Research shows that improving the education levels of girls and women contributes to decreased numbers of child marriages and early pregnancy. Unfortunately, education rates are still low among girls and women from ethnic minority communities.
Nationwide, one in three women – aged 15 to 19 – who have never attended school have begun childbearing.
UNICEF is working to deliver activities aimed at reducing child marriage and promoting safe behaviour among adolescents by providing support to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in developing the Provincial Action Plan to Prevent Child Marriage and Teenage Pregnancy for Ratanakiri province. This action plan, which is expected to be finalized during the course of this year, will address both child marriage and teenage pregnancy as two strongly interlinked issues.
This is part of the Royal Government of Cambodia’s commitment to taking action to prevent and respond to all forms of violence against children.