I was a child bride; Mereso’s Story

By Mereso Kilusu, Special to CNN

Tanzanian Mereso Kilusu was a child bride . She found comfort and her purpose with the local YWCA. She is now an activist against child marriage

Nine of the 10 countries with the world’s highest rates of child marriage are in Africa: Niger, Chad and Central African Republic, Guinea, Mozambique, Mali, Burkina Faso and South Sudan, and Malawi.

My country, Tanzania, did not make the list. But in traditional Maasai communities like mine, marrying off girls is very common. I was married at 13 to a man in his 70s. It happened during Christmas break. My father told my school that I had died. Even if he hadn’t, I would have been forced to leave when I got pregnant because that was the law at the time.

I gave birth to my first child within a year. I had no professional prenatal care and no trained medical assistance during delivery. I had to depend on my husband and his other wives for guidance. It was a very painful experience. Every time I became pregnant after that I felt sick and scared. Because of all these difficult births I have a hard time controlling my bladder and it can be painful to urinate. Today I am a mother of five at 29 years old.

In communities like mine, age is not understood as a number. Our traditional values dictate girls are meant for marriage, and when the men decide we are biologically ready, we are married. Marriage is sometimes a way of forming and cementing relationships. But it is also a way of earning money. My family received a bride price from my husband and then he took me away to become one of his wives.

He beat me regularly, and so I fled back to my village. But my father and brother told me the price had been paid, this was no longer my home, I had to return. It wasn’t until six years ago that I was able to take charge of my own destiny. I ran away to the city of Arusha and met Rebecca, a volunteer with the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). Through counseling, workshops and friendship, I gained more confidence in my own voice and learned to support myself.

When I returned to my village, I found an ally: one of our community leaders named Abraham. In his own extended family girls were running away from forced marriages. He felt obliged to support them by giving them shelter and food. Quietly, he was encouraging them to go to school hoping it would be a way to get girls out of their situation. When he learned about how I was able to find support from YWCA he was inspired. Knowing there would be places for girls to go outside their communities helped convince him they would be OK if they left their marriages. But I love my family and my community, and I didn’t want leaving to be the answer.

So I set up a YWCA in my village. And slowly, change is happening.

Some men and boys are not happy with what I’m doing. I have to be around others all the time to protect myself from harassment. I don’t know if my own father would approve if he were still alive. But many are recognizing that this is the way forward. That girls have value beyond marriage. That we can earn money and contribute more to our communities when we stay in school.

My brother used to think I was wrong to leave my husband. But seeing how well I am doing selling traditional Maasai jewelry and clothing he is starting to respect my choice. He no longer beats me, but he still won’t let me have access to any of my father’s farms. Thankfully I have supporters in my community who help give me other options to grow food for my children. I believe my relationship with my brother will get better with time. I am still working on it.

My mother is so proud. She used to fear my disobedience to my husband would reflect poorly on her and she would be cast out of the community. But now she sees I am welcome and respected and she is so happy to have me back in her life. When attitudes begin to shift from within communities this way, then people start to have hope. And politicians gain more courage to act. Without support from community leaders, parliamentarians fear passing laws will cost them votes and they will lose power to make any difference at all.

Likewise passing laws provides no guarantee girls will be protected unless they have community support: 158 countries have set the legal age for marriage at 18 years but the laws are simply ignored by communities where marrying children and adolescent girls is common practice. In the fight against child marriage, the biggest battle is finding those who are ready for change and giving them the courage to speak to others.

Those of us who believe in the power of girls, who have seen what they can do when they have options, we need to tell everyone we can.

Editor’s note: Tanzanian Mereso Kilusu was a child bride and is now an activist against child marriage. Her story was translated by LoeRose Mbise, of YWCA Tanzania, and edited by Marlee Wasser, of The Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health.

The time for talk is over!

Raechel Mathews is from YWCA Australia (YWCA NSW). Raechel shares the events of day 2 at CSW 2013. She represents the young women of her community and the movement at CSW 2013

Earlier today I attended, as a NGO observer, ‘Parliamentary strategies for tackling violence against women and girls’ jointly hosted by UN Women and the Inter-Parliamentary union (IPU) at the United Nations.

Following a welcome from Mr A Radi, the President of the IPU, Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of UN Women, delivered another passionate statement to the Gover

Raechel Mathews

Raechel Mathews

nment delegates and Parliamentarians regarding the elimination of violence against women. She stated that this CSW 2013 is a ‘tipping point in history…never before has there been so much public support for eliminating violence against women’. She also spoke with a sense of urgency about the end to impunity; deeper social transformation; gender equality and the importance of reviewing and strengthening laws.

She suggested four ways to further help prevent and end violence against women: 1) passing legislation that criminalizes violence – only two thirds of countries have any legislation to prosecute perpetrators of violence; 2) Parliaments’ responsibility to monitor and implement existing and new legislation; 3) Parliamentarians’ personal role in raising society’s increased awareness of violence against women 4) The parliamentary function of budget-setting and budget approval.

 In particular, I loved that she challenged parliamentarians to put their money where their mouth is, by saying:

‘A law is potent only if it has the financial and human resources required for its implementation. These financial requirements must be reflected in budget allocations’

She closed with an incredibly forthright call to action which I hope the delegates in the room considered seriously: ‘Parliamentarians by definition are there to serve the public good and citizens – you were elected to serve ALL citizens. I call on you to never forget that the women and girls you serve – indeed, all humanity – place hope and trust in you. Deeds always count more than words and I count on your passion and commitment for us TOGETHER to bring an end to the history of violence.’

 Go Michelle!

For the remainder of the day, there were panel testimonials from representatives from Mali, Portugal, Zambia Burkina Faso, Mexico, Bolivia and the UK around their challenge and motivations to eliminate violence against women and girls. The UK presentation was a standout for me, about women’s political representation in the media; using past UK Ministers dubbed ‘Babes’, US Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Australia’s Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, as examples where in the public eye, women’s emotions and fashion choices grab more news headlines, far above their policies and political views. The session concluded with ‘Future Strategies for parliaments to end violence against women’ to identify priorities for parliaments to support progress. Broadly, the agreement was around:

  •  Working on changing social and cultural norms and attitudes
  • Amending discriminatory legislation
  • Promoting respect for women’s rights
  • Mainstreaming gender in parliament

It was great to attend the event and get a more global view of the challenges still remaining in the fight to eliminate violence against women. However, once these two weeks have concluded, the time for talk will be over. It’s time for action!