Child Marriage in Southeast Asia
The colorful local culture and dramatic landscapes of the area are a tourist attraction, but behind this vista of beauty is the little known custom of hai pu, which translates to “pull wife”.
“I was on my way home from school. Together with three men, this boy caught me and tied me up. They carried me to the boy’s house and locked me in a small room for three days. His parents brought alcohol and money to my brother’s house. My brother accepted the price and I became the boy’s wife.”
This is the story of 12-year-old May, a member of the Hmong ethnic group from northern Vietnam’s mountainous Ha Giang province.
Her new husband, Pao, is also 12 years old and works across the border in China as a laborer.
Contradictions Across Countries
Although there is a general consensus around the world that a “child” is anyone under the age of 18, inconsistencies can leave girls vulnerable.
For example, in Vietnam, marriage laws require men to be at least 20 years old and women to be 18 before they can be married. Both spouses must also give free consent.
In Timor-Leste, girls can legally be married at 15 years of age, while boys can be married at the age of 18.
Despite these laws, child marriage is a common issue in Southeast Asia where between 10-24 percent of women aged 20-24 years old are married by the age of 18.
Consequences of Child Marriage
“I left school because I was four months pregnant,” says Isabel, a 17-year-old girl from Timor-Leste. Her daughter, Klarisa, is now seven months old and her husband, Joao, is 20 and works as a plumber. The couple married soon after Isabel fell pregnant.
Isabel dropped out of high school in Grade 10 because she “felt embarrassed” and because it’s a violation of school rules to be pregnant and enrolled as a student.
Girls and boys in Timor-Leste have limited access to family planning services, which are only available to married couples, and little knowledge of sexual education.
“Young people don’t know how to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancy,” she says.
Child marriage is a plague in Southeast Asia, deeply rooted in poverty, gender inequality, and traditional practices. And now young women, like Isabel, are living with the consequences.
“I still want to enjoy my life and study like my other friends, but I can’t because I am a mother and have to stay at home to look after my baby,” she says.