EDUCATION, EMPOWERMENT AND CHILD MARRIAGE
You grab your teenage child by the wrist and drag her towards the thirty-year-old man standing a few feet away, ignoring the fear and panic in her eyes and her incessant sobs intermingled with screams of: “Please, no…I’ll be good…” The man, smelling of cigarettes, a hungry look in his eyes and the corners of his mouth curled into a smirk, pulls your child closer to himself. Then he thrusts some crumpled money into your hand. The deal is done. You have sold your child into marriage for the price of a used car. That look of fear and panic in your child’s eyes is one common to 15 million girls worldwide, some as young as nine or ten years old. 1 We at Leave No Girl Behind International (LNGB) are committed to stopping child marriage in the only effective way possible – through education and empowerment.
Millions of children of all genders (the vast majority being girls) are married before attaining adulthood. Child marriage goes across countries, cultures, religions and ethnicities, – this despite the fact that in 153 countries, the minimum legal marriageable age is eighteen. 2 It is the exceptions to the law, influenced by the stronghold of cultural and traditional practices, which override the legislation. It is at the level of these deep-rooted causes that LNGB addresses child marriage.
The reality of child marriage occurs in a variety of ways:
The sound of laughter wafts through the air as three Nepali girls play Dori (known as skipping or jump rope in the Western world). Eleven year old Aarti jumps with ease and grace, and she enjoys the fact that others have gathered to watch her skill. She stops jumping as she hears her mother calling her name – a signal that dinner must be prepared. With laughter-filled goodbyes, the friends arrange to meet the next day – an arrangement that, unbeknown to Aarti, will not come to pass because her childhood innocence and laughter is about to be taken from her forever.
As she helps her mother and grandmother to put the steaming dal-bhat-takari on the small table, Aarti notices the women exchanging glances. She will remember her mother’s words for the rest of her life: “Aarti, from tomorrow onwards you are not going to go to school. We have much preparing to do. A week from now, you will be married.” Those last eight words will change Aarti’s life in a way that she cannot comprehend. She will become the property of a young man and his parents, a human resource to be used at will like a scrubbing rag; physically, sexually and for the purposes of others…possibly until she is completely worn and her physical body cannot cling to life any longer.
Aarti’s husband-to-be is only sixteen – a teenager who is not ready for the prospect of marriage; a child himself. He too is a victim of child marriage, and will bow to the customs of his country and the will of his uneducated parents. His human rights have been violated and his childhood stolen from him.
Thousands of miles away, in Malawi:
Chiwa is daunted at the prospect of getting married. At thirteen years old, in her culture, this is not an abnormal turn of events. She has been in a sexual relationship with her eighteen-year-old boyfriend since the age of eleven and throughout the relationship, he has provided small tokens of appreciation which Chiwa’s family could never afford to purchase. When extreme poverty is a way of life, those in need will look to any source for their basic requirements to be taken care of. Unfortunately, Chiwa is now pregnant. She and her boyfriend feel pressured to bow to the will of their parents and their culture – for them there seems to be no other option but to be married. Chiwa’s hopes of an education are crushed, along with her dream of becoming a nurse. Instead, she becomes a statistic – the 1 in 2 girls in Malawi married before her eighteenth birthday.3 This is not the only statistical group she will become part of.
The same emotions that are felt by Aarti and Chiwa are experienced by Amena, a girl of sixteen in Afghanistan.
Amena shudders with sobs and fear as she is grabbed roughly by a man and pulled towards him and his family. This stranger who is her father’s age is to become her husband. In alignment with the custom in Afghanistan, Amena has been given in baad by her own father to settle a dispute between the two families; an expendable pawn in their chess game. Emotions overwhelm her as the realisation of betrayal sets in.
Emotional and psychological abuse and beatings become a way of life for this child whose innocence has been so brutally taken. Her wounds, raw and deep, some physical and others emotional, will never heal. There is a good chance that she will be freed of this hell sooner than she thinks…by her own death.
All three girls will now be under the control of their husbands and in-laws; dependent on these strangers for every morsel of food, every scrap of clothing. These girls’ stories are not unique. In fact, the situation has become so urgent that if there is no reduction in this heinous practice, the global number of child brides will reach 1.2 billion by 2050.4 To imagine this statistic, consider that 1.2 billion is the equivalent of the entire population of India right now or almost four times the current total population of the United States!
“Is there no law at all in place to protect the children?” you may ask. In Aarti’s case, Nepal does have such legislation – the minimum age of marriage under Nepali law is 20 years. In spite of this Nepal has been ranked among the top twenty countries where child marriage occurs.5 It is suggested that the reason for the transgression of this law being so common is simply a low level of awareness of the law and weak enforcement thereof. Furthermore, government efforts are futile since they are not backed by appropriate infrastructure to enforce legal efforts.
The shocking reality is that although child marriage is prohibited by both the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (LNGB strongly supports both these treaties), and these treaties have been signed or ratified by every country except South Sudan (now taking steps to ratify the former), children of every gender and socioeconomic group, including children in wealthy Western countries, are subjected to child marriage.6
With their own families casting them, unprotected, into the horrors of child marriage, and both national and international legislation having no authority to override the cultural bastions that govern their lives, it is only initiatives from organisations like LNGB that can truly make a difference in the lives of these children and their families.
The question remains: why would any parent would drive their child into such a life to begin with? To anyone reading this, an eleven year old girl getting married is criminal. Why, then, would this decision make sense to Aarti, Chiwa and Amena’s respective parents?
In many developing countries worldwide, girls are regarded as a burden or expense, while boys are regarded as an investment – future financial caretakers of their parents. Boys are therefore seen as more valuable, and their education is deemed necessary so that they may carry out their societal role, while girls are thought of as the future property of their husbands and in-laws. In such a world, there is no thought of gender equality or human rights.
Many families in this culture of gender inequality and strong traditional practices are in a state of poverty and there seem to be two solutions: either increase their income, or decrease expenses.
In countries such as Nepal the girl’s family pays a dowry to her future spouse’s family. The younger and less educated the girl, the less the dowry that is required. Parents therefore tend to marry off their girls at a younger age. Having one child less in the home means one less mouth to feed. In many cases girls like Aarti, who have no idea about the implications of marriage, at first welcome the idea of a marriage, hoping that their basic needs will be taken care of more adequately – in some families even food is prioritised for boys.7
Child marriage is therefore regarded as a method for families to reduce their poverty. In certain African cultures, such as in Chiwa’s culture in Malawi, it is the men who pay a dowry in order to marry a girl. The girl’s parents are alleviated of their poverty by marrying off their daughter. It must also be noted that the myth that such parents are monsters can, in many cases, be dispelled. Parents may be promised that their daughters will be taken care of and be in a much improved financial situation than their current circumstances allow; they welcome the prospect of a better life for their daughters. The nightmare that follows is a very different reality to the one envisioned by these parents and their daughters.
There are also some societies in which early marriage is believed to protect young girls from sexual attacks and violence, and is viewed as a way to ensure that daughters do not become pregnant out of the confines of marriage, bringing dishonour to the family. In Amena’s case, she is the victim of the perception in her culture that girls and women are commodities – currency to trade with, payment for transgressions or crimes, assets to be cashed in for a suitable deal.
Initiatives to change the above perceptions, such as the programs provided by LNGB, are not easily accessible due to lack of resources, nor is creating an infrastructure so that they can be accessible, easily funded or valued by those whose lives are governed by blind tradition. Change is more easily accepted when it comes from educated individuals within the culture who embrace such initiatives and are able to educate and empower people with the help of their governments, law enforcement officers, law-makers and the international community. LNGB is dedicated to creating such change by working with educated individuals within these cultures to make programs, particularly LNGB Power Circles, accessible to the at-risk youth, and indirectly, their parents and caregivers.
The consequences of child marriage are devastating and far-reaching, even in the best of circumstances. Consider Aarti’s case:
Aarti is fortunate – her parents-in-law are kind to her and her husband shows kindness too. She has more to eat now than when she lived in her parents’ home, and her basic needs are taken care of. Aarti and her husband consummate the marriage as per the expectations of their society. Due to a lack of basic sex education on both sides, Aarti and her husband have unprotected sex and she becomes pregnant. Her young body is not ready to carry a child, and there are many complications in her pregnancy, resulting in many doctors’ visits.
When Aarti gives birth her life is at risk, however, miraculously, she survives despite the complications.7 Still a child herself, Aarti has to deal with the adult responsibility of raising a child. Having left school at eleven years old, she is uneducated, and should her husband (who is also largely uneducated) be unable to provide for their needs, she will live in poverty. Perhaps the poverty and her need for basic survival, combined with the lack of education, will cause the cycle to repeat itself with her own child.
Although Chiwa’s life is not consumed by abuse, it is the lack of education that ultimately kills her:
Like many adolescent girls, Chiwa has a complicated pregnancy and limited access to proper health care. She goes into labour prematurely, and during a difficult labour, Chiwa again becomes a statistic – an adolescent girl who dies in childbirth.8 Her lifespan has been thirteen years. She has barely even lived.
It is Amena who experiences the worst consequences of child marriage:
Amena finds herself at the hands of an abuser. Her husband occasionally beats her, as do her parents-in-law. Since she has no income and little education, she has no means to remove herself from this torturous situation. She is always hungry since her food portions are restricted due to poverty, and the thin, worn items of clothing she has been provided with, do not keep her warm.
Amena has had no sex education and is terrified of engaging in any sexual activity with her husband. Her husband forces her to have sex and she becomes the victim of marital rape, which is not recognised as a crime in the eyes of the law of her country. Since her husband refuses to use any protection during sex, Amena contracts a sexually transmitted disease. She is not able to receive proper medical care since she is financially independent on her in-laws who do not deem her health a priority. Her husband eventually takes her to a doctor and, during that visit, Amena discovers that she is pregnant.
After a complicated pregnancy, during which her husband continues to physically abuse her, Amena gives birth to a baby boy. By the time she is thirty years old, Amena has lived through a lifetime of having her human rights violated – the right to education, the right to own her body, the right to dignity, her sexual and reproductive rights, and even her right to live. All these human rights violations took place before her eighteenth birthday and then continued throughout her life. Amena’s son is now an adult who has learned from the example of his father. He believes women and girls are not entitled to human rights and will treat his wife and daughter as his property. The cycle repeats itself.
How many children must be tortured, raped, physically brutalised and emotionally and psychologically scarred within what is termed a “marriage” – an institution that they have been taught is sacrosanct – before measures are taken to stop this insanity? If these girls had been participants in LNGB Power Circles, they would have been educated about their human rights and empowered to explore different options before the dark, brutal reality that was cloaked in the prospect of “marriage” became their fate. The girls would have tried talking to their parents or teachers or asked an educated adult from within their respective cultures to intervene and engage their parents in a discussion of reconsidering the marriage. As a last resort, they would have known to seek shelter through an organisation that protects children from situations like these, fighting to protect their own rights and their lives. However, in all probability, the ripple effect of each girl being educated and empowered through an LNGB Power Circle, would have spilled over onto her parents who would not have considered marriage for their daughter at all.
The strongholds of destructive cultural practices and social norms can only be challenged through the swords of education and empowerment. LNGB remains committed to the fight for the rights of children, and ending child marriage is a large component of this effort. The following steps are being taken through our programs to educate and empower children and the adults in their lives:
- Providing children with credible sex education, especially with information regarding prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.
- Providing information about the dangers of adolescent pregnancy and childbirth.
- Educating children about gender equality, their human rights and how to exercise these rights on a practical level.
- Teaching children about the laws in their country and the international laws that protect their rights.
- Creating opportunities for parents, caregivers, teachers and other adults in the children’s lives to be involved in these discussions and to become more educated about children’s rights, the long-term consequences of these rights being violated, and bringing home the realisation to them about why it is incumbent on them to take action to protect their children’s rights.
The dialogue and the education and empowerment measures to stop child marriage have to include adults of all genders, especially men who are often the decision makers in cultures where child marriage frequently occurs. The following simple steps can be taken by ordinary citizens to make a difference, with the premise that a million small steps result in a real and tangible shift in thinking and action which will change the status quo:
- Educating themselves and the children in their lives about national and international laws that protect children.
- Educating themselves about the dangers and consequences of child marriage.
- Becoming an LNGB Power Circle facilitator and thereby educating and empowering groups of children, or getting their children involved in an LNGB Power Circle.
- Donating to small business initiatives in developing countries through microfinance platforms – when a family in a developing country, with the help of a few dollars, starts a business and attains financial independence, that family is not likely to consider marrying off a child to alleviate poverty.
- Raising awareness about child marriage, sharing information through blogs and social media, and supporting organisations like LNGB that work to stop child marriage.
When these steps are taken on a large scale, we are able to create change. Let’s change the story so that Aarti’s story, and the story of every child at risk for child marriage, has an ending that we as global citizens can proudly embrace:
Aarti is part of an LNGB Power Circle. She is an educated and empowered individual. Her parents have attended some of the conferences held by the organisation and have educated and empowered themselves through these conferences, realising that it is incumbent on them to act on Aarti’s behalf to protect her human rights. Aarti’s uncle visits one evening and while enjoying the steaming dal-bhat-takari in front of him, he raises the prospect of eleven-year-old Aarti getting married. With one voice, Aarti, her mother and her father firmly articulate: “NO!”
Aarti continues with her education, becoming a highly educated individual who in turn educates and empowers others in her community and country. She becomes a human rights attorney, acting on behalf of children whose voices have been silenced. Not only does she create justice for children in an environment where they feel that they have been forgotten, but she assists in government initiatives to stop child marriage, and also works to educate and empower children in her spare time by being an LNGB Power Circle facilitator. Aarti contributes to the increase of the GDP of her country and makes a difference in her world. One child, through education and empowerment, becomes the change she wished to see in the world.
|Rank||Country Name||% girls married before 18|
|3||Central African Republic||68|
1 UNICEF, 2014, Ending Child Marriage – Progress and Prospects. New York, UNICEF
2 “Many Countries Allow Child Marriage, September 12, 2016”, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/09/12/many-countries-allow-child-marriage/
3”Malawi: End Widespread Child Marriage”, March 6, 2014, https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/03/06/malawi-end-widespread-child-marriage
4 “Child Marriage Around the World”, http://www.girlsnotbrides.org/where-does-it-happen/
5Joint press release of UNICEF, New York, 7 March 2013, http://www.unicef.org/media/media_68114.html
6“10 Myths About Child Marriage”, February 12, 2015, http://www.unfpa.org/news/top-10-myths-about-child-marriage
7“Our Time to Sing and Play”, September 7, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/09/07/our-time-sing-and-play/child-marriage-nepal
8“Adolescent Pregnancy”, September, 2014, http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs364/en/