Early Marriages Among Roma: Understand or Condemn


Because of early pregnancy and the birth of a child, the future of the little girl is under threat. Lack of education and bad health is often dooming her to spend life in poverty, powerlessness and injustice.

In any part of the world poor and poorly educated girls compared to their richer peers and educated are in more risk of becoming pregnant at an early age. In addition, the risk of becoming pregnant at the age of 12-15 years is higher among girls who are members of ethnic or marginalized groups. These girls have no right for choice in their life and have little access to services in the area of reproductive health. They have no access to information about contraception and safe sex, as well as appropriate medical services.

Every year, millions of girls skip adolescence and the children immediately become mothers with adult responsibilities. If today they are still cared by parents, tomorrow they already find themselves dependent on a man, which closes the circle of gender inequality, dependence, helplessness and powerlessness.

In previous publications we have said that in a civilization development the Roma stay behind from other nations. So, in the Roma community some things still exist that already seem archaic and do not fit into the framework of the modern society. The reasons of it on the surface: about a thousand years ago, they were nomadic people in Europe, but living next to indigenous nations, they still were in isolation, and in conditions of hostility and rejection. It is logical, that to save their family, Roma went into deep isolation and hardly perceived civilized achievement of their neighbors with indigenous nations.

World Social Problem

One of the many traditions of the Roma people, which are not perceived by Ukrainian, is early marriage and therefore early pregnancy. If in Ukraine to give the girl to marry as soon as she reaches reproductive age (12-13 years) was considered normal about 100-150 years ago, for Roma it’s approved even today.

Teen pregnancy is international social problem of poor and marginalized populations. The traditions of early marriage and pregnancies usually are considered normal in the so-called developing countries and generally recognized as the social problem.

The problem worries the international institutions so much, that in 2013, The UN Population Fund called the teenage pregnancy a theme of the year. According to the UN annually worldwide, about 16 million became pregnant in aged 15-19 years. The leaders are Central Africa, South Asia and America, the Caribbean. Those are the states that are now considered as poor and backward. Roma were not included in the list because they do not have their own country, but otherwise they would be among the leaders. Indirectly, this indicates the fact that the problem of child and adolescent marriage is very crucial for India – the ancestral home of Roma. And the issue is mostly sore in the poorest orthodox states.

Before – a rule, and now – an anomaly

Historically, early marriages were related to religion, according to which the main and almost the only role of women was limited to procreation. An average age of life in ancient times also made the “delay” of a pregnancy impossible.
The situation changed radically in the 19th and especially in the 20th century. Development of medicine significantly increased life expectancy. At the same time, the civil rights movement developed, that stated that “the weaker gender” has the same ability and the right to a full life, and not limited to the birth and upbringing of children.

Roma marriage

The movement for women’s rights has led to the fact that now women are in politics, business and science, receiving a full education on a par with men, as well as any profession at their abilities. It is clear that under these conditions teenage girls mostly didn’t think about the having children. New opportunities led to the fact that the institution of the family goes into the background, and many women do not want to give birth.

The traditionalists don’t like this situation and continue to alarm: it can lead to the collapse of the family. Perhaps the abandonment of the family – it’s really extreme. However, very close with free women we are seeing another extreme: the mass marriages and teenage childbearing children.

It is not about earnings

People tend to simplify the real reasons of massive pregnancies of Roma women. Because of the growth on financial assistance for child all the acts of Roma are associated with it. The teenager pregnancy wasn’t the exception. In other words, many of our fellow citizens believe that Roma give early birth, only because of receiving the money. The fact that early marriage, and therefore the birth of children in the Roma community have been practiced for centuries, is not taken into account.

Even if material gain is the reason for the birth of a teenager, then, firstly, it is not the only reason, and secondly, it is unlikely to be the desire of the girl. First of all, marriage at a young age – is a long tradition of Roma closed society that, due to isolation of camps from the outside world, cannot leave it in the past by themselves.

Clearly, the 13-14 year-old girl who only sees this style of life, believes that it is the norm. If she did not want this marriage, she cannot go against tradition, because such “sabotage” could end up in scandal and even public expulsion from the camp. As with many other issues, teen pregnancy in the Roma community has become a vicious circle, which will never be broken by itself.

The terrible statistics

The problem of teenage pregnancy have been raised internationally, not because there is nothing else to do. When this phenomenon is mass, it entails a whole bunch of different problems. First, it is a very negative impact on the health of young mothers. Pregnancy and childbirth are the great burden and stress for the body of a woman. At a young age it’s more complicated. The younger the mother, the worse the effects on her health. Secondly, there is a lack of calcium in her body. Adolescence – a period when people are growing rapidly. Because calcium is needed as for young mom and for her fetus in the womb. This element is simply not enough for two. Especially, in the difficult conditions of life, when few people know about the vitamins. The consequence is the broken structure of bones.

“It is very easy to condemn us, more difficult is to understand us – philosophically ponders Clara Kovacs, a resident of Roma settlements, with a social worker of the Human Rights Fund “Progress”. – Our nation must not fight with our traditions. If we have an early marriage, it will continue to exist. We must accept it and think about how to adapt these traditions to the conditions of modern society. We understand that, we should meet halfway, but it will take decades”.

Typically, early pregnancy is often accompanied by abnormalities: a strong toxicosis or placental insufficiency. Miscarriages are not uncommon in such circumstances. Children are born with low weight; they are more likely to have diseases and often die as babies. The bodies of mothers are underdeveloped to give birth. Births are very difficult and the cases of deaths are frequent.

More convincing that words, the statistics of the World Health Organization says. The share of teens accounts for 11% of births in the world. However, they account for 23% of illnesses related to pregnancy and childbirth. 2.5 million Juveniles annually do unsafe abortions, which later, in adulthood, lead to serious health problems.

In Latin America, the risk of death in childbirth among girls younger than 16 years is four times higher than among women of 20-29 years old. The share of juveniles childbirth accounts for 65% of obstetric fistula, which leads to catastrophic consequences in life, both physiological and psychological.

The data about newborns is also sad. Among children, born to mothers under the age of 20 years, stillbirths and deaths during the first week are 50% more than the same period in mothers aged 20-29 years. In addition, minor mothers are more irresponsible. They are much more likely to smoke and drink alcohol during pregnancy, which has a negative impact on the health of their children.

The burden on society

For society, there is nothing good in the mass of teenage pregnancy. Just think: girl is physiologically capable of becoming pregnant and bear a child as early as 12-13 years. This is about the sixth school class, the time when more serious education for children starts, for those who only recently learned how to read, to write, to multiply and to divide. Instead of celebration the feast of the first bell with their peers and learning school discipline for the future, which will help to find a decent profession, young mothers are forced to leave school and thus give up their own future. They will never complete their education.

Even at such a young age they become a financial burden on society, which is compelled to support both teenage mothers and their children.

Supporting them is likely to be needed for many years if not all lifetime. Even when children grow up, women without education can only perform unskilled, mostly low-paid jobs and cannot live without social assistance. Another whole generation of women grows ignorant and unable to teach their children something new.

Rights and obligations

The problem of teenage pregnancy is connected with human rights. Pregnant girls, quitting school, are deprived of their right to education. And on another hand, the girl who is not deprived of the right to education and continues to attend school is less likely to get pregnant. Thus, the implementation of a right gives her more opportunities to realize all rights.

But in addition to the rights of persons in whatever age they have responsibilities. The article 29 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: Everyone has duties to the community in which the free and full development of personality possible.

According to the law a girl is seen as an adult after the age of 17. Before this time she is a child. Her parents are responsible for her, and they do not have the right to exploit her. Otherwise, there is reason to deprive them of their parental rights. But in practice it is only the responsibility of social workers, who should be interested in what happens to the minors. Experience shows, that they prefer not to walk to Roma camp, and they are not interested in the Roma children.

But even if social services suddenly set out to accurately track the exploitation of minors in Roma camps and treated parents as required by law, they would be faced with a wall of misunderstanding and hatred of adult Roma, who perceived it as gross interference in their people’s family affairs and pressure from the authorities.

Roma still do not realize that in the civilized world their traditions are punishable by law. How it can it be wrong if their parents did the same? Unfortunately, the largest part of girls thinks the same way. Therefore, in general, these stories emerge very rarely, though they did not even try to keep secret.

As in many other cases, for Roma, all explanations, that juvenile daughters marry and allow them to have children in very young age is against law, stumble upon a high blank wall of misunderstanding, built on the solid foundation of tradition. It is naive to hope that a leaflet or lecture can convince Roma that all models of their way of life are wrong.

Finally, it’s always difficult for people to accept changes that are at odds with their beliefs about life. At the time of our ancestors similarly treated with misunderstanding that women should have equal rights with men, that education it is a really necessary for every child thing, that children are also individuals who have the right to choose in life. Now all these things are obvious for the most. Although recently from a historical point of view it was quite different.

Either put up or retrain

Due to the nature of the nomadic lifestyle and social exclusion Roma in the mass “skipped” those lessons, that life gave for indigenous European nations. And now we are faced with the traditional problem for people living next to the Roma: either tolerate their traditions, or retrain them to argue that in modern conditions these traditions are archaic and are viable.

A long and difficult way, which does not give an absolute guarantee, but in fact has no alternative, are numerous consultations, seminars and courses where for Roma it will be explained how threatens and how to reject the tradition of early marriage and early childbearing. It is not enough to bring this idea to the girls. To understand the incorrectness of this way, above all, parents should know the affect to their daughters. Ideally, these ideas have to explain to Roma their tribesmen, who do not live in traditional Roma society and have achieved success in life.

Now, Ukrainian legislation does not provide for the existence the program about the responsible parenthood. The programs which are with accessible language explain to minors what motherhood is. Which stated, that as mothers they should provide their children the conditions for growth and development, including providing the secondary education. Only because they are illiterate mothers, they are unlikely to give something much better for their own children.

There is no state-level programs to prevent early pregnancy. Therefore, this issue is highly relevant for the Ukrainian population, though perhaps not extent among Roma.

Looking to other states, we can state with confidence that underage pregnancy and having many children – is primarily a sign of poor developing countries, which are characterized by a low level of education and a great devotion to traditions. This problem is directly related to the level of education. Roma education is a major step to solve this social problem.

Oleg Grigoryev