PREAH VIHEAR, Cambodia – Theary Pov’s massive wedding photo proudly occupies a quarter of the living room wall in her home in Chamroreun village, northern Cambodia, where she lives with her parents and husband.
In the picture, the newlyweds are dressed in traditional pink and white robes, the groom holding a sword and the bride wearing a long skirt, bangles and a scarf covering her shoulders. Her opulent outfit and thick make-up render the girl in the photograph almost unrecognizable as the fresh-faced, pajama-clad teenager sitting on the floor mat and playing with her one-year-old daughter.
Pov is 15 years old. She married her “sweetheart” when she was just 13 and he was 20. But she wasn’t forced by her family to marry an older man, like she might have been in other countries where child marriage is also prevalent. Pov says she married because she was “in love,” and the couple had to convince their parents to allow them to wed – a request that village chief Pheng Hai says has become increasingly common among teenagers in the area.
“Now, they [young people] tell their parents they had sex already and their parents need to agree to the marriage because otherwise they will be shamed,” says Hai, who has been village chief for 20 years.
“But I don’t register those marriages because people can only officially get married when they are 18.” Cambodia’s legal marriage age is 18, or 16 with parental consent, but while unions involving underage girls are not recognized by the state, their families and communities consider them married.
Soon after Pov got married, she became pregnant. And her story is by no means unique in this part of the country – a fact reflected in a dramatic rise in teenage pregnancy rates in recent years.
Following a relatively stable decade in teenage fertility rates, the National Demographic and Health Survey of 2014 recorded a sharp uptick in teen pregnancies across the country, but particularly in the north and northeast. In Preah Vihear province, where Pov lives, rates more than doubled from 11 percent to 25 percent. In Rattanakiri province in the north of the country and in the northeastern province of Kratie, rates tripled.
The dangers of early childbearing have been documented by numerous nongovernmental organizations, including Save the Children, which in its 2017 report described Cambodia as a place where girls were having their childhoods stolen, in part due to early motherhood.
Some sexual and reproductive health workers in Cambodia, like Som Navin of the Preah Vihear branch of the Commune Committee for Women and Children, a local government body, ascribe the rise in teen pregnancies to increased mobility, with more teens driving scooters and motorbikes; the relaxation of social norms, including parental supervision; and the widespread use of mobile phones – a study conducted by Asia Foundation in 2016 says 95 percent of people in the countryside own a mobile phone.
“I was 22 years old when I had my first child,” says Navin. “It’s only now that things are changing. Before, boys and girls would communicate in a traditional way and now they use technology. They can call each other and send text messages.”
Texting and phone calls certainly played a role in furthering Pov’s romance with her husband, just like they did in the relationships of some other teenage mothers from the neighboring village of Srei Sronos, which has been experiencing similar child marriage trends.
Sreypov Lam was 15 when she met her 18-year-old husband two years ago. “I met him on the road. He asked for my phone number and then we started texting and calling each other,” she says.
Sek Sokhom, youth health program manager at the Reproductive Health Association of Cambodia, the country’s main reproductive health NGO, says the issue is not modern communication, but a lack of education. She says the number of teen pregnancies is on the rise because there is little discussion around sexual and reproductive health, topics still considered taboo by most in what remains a largely conservative society.
While the Ministry of Education is currently working on a comprehensive and compulsory sex education curriculum, it won’t be rolled out in schools across the country until 2019. And even after they learn about their reproductive rights, many women might never get the chance to exercise them, says Sokhom.
She says gender inequality and traditional cultural norms – such as those laid out in the Chbab Srey, a traditional code of conduct in the form of a poem that calls on women to be “good girls” – are at the crux of the problem.
“Social norms value virginity, so girls should not have sex before marriage and those who do have sex before marriage will destroy their family’s reputation,” she says.
As a result, she says, parents let their underage daughters marry in order to save face, and traditional social expectations further push the girls into childrearing.
Like many girls, Sreypov Lam from Srei Sronos village had heard of contraception at school, but never considered using it because her new husband told her she should bear children right away.
“We didn’t use contraception because he wanted to have a baby early and if I didn’t give him a child I wouldn’t be a good wife,” Lam says while nursing her 1-year-old son.
She married at the age of 15, two months after meeting her husband. Today, she hardly ever sees him – he works as a daily laborer in a remote area in Preah Vihear province. Having dropped out of school right after getting married, Lam is planning to move to Phnom Penh to join the legion of garment factory workers.
“I used to think I wanted to go back to school but it is too late for me now, so I just want to go to Phnom Penh to work in a factory. I will leave the baby with my parents while I go looking for work.”
If she could start over, she says, she would have waited to get married and have children.
“I regret marrying my husband and making this decision at such a young age.”
This article has been funded by the European Journalism Centre via its Innovation in Development Reporting Grant program.