Child Marriage: Enough is Enough

By Marcia Banasko, World YWCA Communications Officer. (Original Source first published via Girls Globe)

Child marriage remains one of the most horrific human rights violations that exists today. It is estimated that globally 14 million girls are married off before the age of 18, robbing them of their childhood and leaving them vulnerable to violence, poverty, domestic slavery, sexual assault and HIV/AIDS. Child marriage is a human rights violation that cuts across countries, cultures, religions and ethnicity.

The recent news coverage of the 8-year-old girl who was married off to a 40-year-old man in Yemen, poignantly highlights the desperate need to outlaw child marriage. After their wedding night, the 8-year-old girl – identified as “Rawan” – died from torn genitals and severe bleeding in the northwest city of Hardh. According to media accounts, the fatal injuries were incurred through sexual intercourse. Let me emphasize that it was NOT sexual intercourse. It was rape and it should be clearly understood as so.  Rawan’s tragic story is sadly not unique and millions of girls die every year from injuries incurred from sexual violence.

Image Courtesy of Gerry & Bonni on Flickr (Creative Commons)

Image Courtesy of Gerry & Bonni on Flickr (Creative Commons)

Furthermore, as a result of child marriage, these girls are at far greater risk of experiencing dangerous complications in pregnancy and childbirth. Yemen has a high maternal mortality rate of 370 deaths per 100,000 live births. Reproductive health studies show that young women face greater risks in pregnancy than older women, including life-threatening obstructed labour due to adolescents’ smaller pelvises. The shortage of prenatal and postnatal healthcare services, especially in Yemen’s rural areas, place girls’ and women’s lives at risk. An overwhelming majority of Yemeni women still deliver at home, often without the assistance of a skilled birth attendant capable of handling childbirth emergencies. Girls who marry young often have insufficient information on family planning or worse, none at all. As young wives they find it difficult to assert themselves against older husbands to negotiate family planning methods.

Human Rights Watch reports that 14% of girls in Yemen are married before age 15, with 82% married before age 18. Child marriage is in fact legal in Yemen; however, in light of the recent cases and international media attention, Yemen Parliamentarians are calling for new laws which ban child marriage, set the minimum age for marriage at 18 ,and implement strategic measures to effectively enact the law. Speaking in an interview with CNN, Hooria Mashhour, Yemen’s human rights minister stated,

Many child marriages take place every year in Yemen. It’s time to end this practice.”

In order to fully eliminate child marriage, awareness raising of the negative impacts of this human rights violation must be conducted. There are a magnitude of elements that contribute to child marriage including lack of awareness and understanding. One father who married off his young daughter spoke to Human Rights Watch and declared that if he knew then what he knows now he would never have married off his daughter.

In many cases, the reality of poverty plays a big role in the decision to marry off a daughter. Here are a few examples of how poverty impacts child marriage:

  • Marrying a girl child means one less family member to feed, clothe and educate.
  • The bride’s family receives a hefty dowdy/bride price for a young girl, or in those instances where the bride’s family pays the groom a dowry, they often have to pay less money if the bride is young and uneducated. Sometimes the daughters are actually sold to pay off debts.

Another huge determinant of child marriage is tradition. Child marriage is a traditional practice in many countries and cultures around the world, and breaking tradition can alienate families from the rest of the community. However in the words of Graca Machel, member of The Elders and a major contributor to the founding of Girls Not Brides,

Traditions are made by us – and we can decide to change them. We should be respectful but we must also have the courage to stop harmful practices that impoverish girls, women and their communities.”

One 11 year old Yemeni girl decided to break away from tradition and challenged her own parents when they arranged for her to be married to an older man. Nada al-Ahdal caught the attention of the world when she uploaded a three minute video on YouTube after she escaped from your family and took refuge at her uncle’s house.

The world needs more Nada al-Ahdal’s but can we really leave eight, nine, ten, and eleven-year-olds to defend themselves? Nada is one of the rare and lucky girls’ who successfully avoided child marriage but there are millions who are not so lucky. Hence, we need to make a change and advocate for child marriage to be fully outlawed and recognised as a human rights violation. Thousands of NGOs, human rights defenders, women and girls have been advocating to end child marriage for years and, although change will not come over night, we must keep on and remember the Rawan’s of the world.

Take Action:

Girls Not Brides

Every Woman Every Child

Other Useful Websites:

Human Rights Watch

UNFPA

Mereso Kilusu I was a Child Bride

Mereso22

(Mereso right)

This was story originally published on CNN’s African Voices website. Written by Mereso Kilusu, from the YWCA of Tanzania.

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. We need to teach girls that it’s OK to say no to marrying before they are ready, and that there are places they can go if they have to run away.

We need to talk to families about different ways their girls can contribute to their livelihoods, so that marriage is not seen as the only option.

We need to show community leaders examples of girls who have stayed in school, learned skills, and have helped develop their local economies.

We need to convince politicians that they should pass laws to protect and empower girls, and that the people will support them if they do.

And we need to share our success stories with the world. Because people need to know we are fighting for change and they can join us in their own countries and communities.

Change is possible when we believe in each other. I am living proof.