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Wife: Child brides in the 21st century

Welcome to our new Wife columnist, Sharron Goodyear. Never one to do things by halves, she’s beginning her blog with the examination of an issue not often discussed, but still surprisingly current in the 21st century: Child brides. Leave her a comment or question to make her feel at home…

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Most of us remember how we felt on the day we got married – usually we awake with a heady mix of nerves and excitement for the day (and the life) that lays ahead of us. For those of us who have chosen to marry, this day, our wedding day, marks one of the most important days of our life. It is both a celebration of love and a commitment to our chosen partner – till death sadly do us part.

Love, companionship and the desire to make a public, life-long commitment to each other are the driving forces behind this type of marriage, which is of course how our wedding day should be…

As a child, I – like many – dreamed of the day I would marry my Prince Charming. Doesn’t every little girl dream at least once of what it will feel like to be a princess for a day? My dream however was just that, a fairytale. All I really wanted to do was be a kid and enjoy the uncomplicated pleasures that came with it.

Child bride-2Heartbreakingly though, while some girls dream or act out such future fairytale weddings, all wrapped up in the innocence of childhood, others are being robbed of that very innocence and childhood by being forced into marriage, often with a man much older than themselves.

Only two weeks ago, a child bride from Nigeria forced into marriage with a 35-year-old man, killed the groom and three of his friends by poisoning their meal with rat poison.  Fourteen-year-old Wasila Umaru confessed to committing the crime because she was forced to marry a man she did not love. Wasila is likely to be charged with culpable homicide as a result. What a tragic example of the desperation a child forced into marriage must feel.

Forced child marriages are overwhelmingly widespread within the developing world, with India alone accounting for 40% of the world’s child brides.  Around 14 million girls under the age of 18 marry each year.

The image shows a child being force fed while her feet are clamped. This tradition is used to administer pain by pressure to distract the child and make them consume more.

The image shows a child being force fed while her feet are clamped. This tradition is used to administer pain by pressure to distract the child and make them consume more.

In the West African country of Mauritania, activists are currently trying to ban the practice of force feeding young girls to fatten them up for marriage.  A report by Equality Now highlights the case of a child bride who died last year after being put on a dangerously high-calorie diet. Khadijetou whose weight ballooned after she was force fed from the age of seven, was married at eight to her father’s cousin, a man 10 years older than her father. She was seriously obese by the time of her wedding.

After falling pregnant Khadijetou’s health rapidly deterioated and her doctor put her on a strict diet to lose weight. She gave birth by cesarean section to save her baby’s life but sadly died 20 days after giving birth. She was just 11 years old.

In its report Equality Now calls for Mauritania to ban force feeding and child marriages, which account for over 35 percent of all marriages in the country, according to the U.N. Population Fund.

Many men in Mauritania consider obese women beautiful, seeing their size as a sign of wealth and prestige. The report says gavage (force feeding) is closely linked to early childhood marriage because it accelerates puberty and makes younger girls appear more womanly.

"Too young to wed: the secret world of child brides" is a revealing documentary from the Pulitzer Centre

“Too young to wed: the secret world of child brides” is a revealing documentary from the Pulitzer Centre

Why does Child Marriage Exist?

Child marriage is a traditional practice that in many places happens simply because it has happened for generations – and straying from tradition could mean exclusion from the community. But as Graça Machel, wife of the late Nelson Mandela, says, traditions are made by people – we can change them.

Sadly, poor families, usually in rural areas around the globe, also use their daughters as currency to purchase wealth for their family. Children are often married to much older men because they can afford to pay a high price for them.

In Southern Sudan, the exchange is often done in cows. For these poor families, a herd of cattle can mean food and wealth for years to come, but the highest price is, of course, paid for by the daughter herself.

What are the consequences of early and forced marriage?

Early and forced marriage contributes to driving girls into a cycle of poverty and powerlessness. Child brides are more likely than unmarried girls to die younger, suffer from health problems, live in poverty and remain illiterate. Maternal mortality is also a huge problem. Girls younger than 15 are five times more likely to die during child birth or pregnancy than older women. Pregnancy-related deaths are the leading cause of mortality for girls aged 15 to 19 worldwide.

Child brides are also likely to experience violence, abuse and forced sexual relations as well as poor sexual and reproductive health. Lack of education is also commonplace as girls are forced to drop out of school shortly before or when they get married.

How can we end child marriage? 

Child marriage denies girls the educational and economic opportunities to help lift themselves and their families out of poverty. A report by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) identifies five strategies to help prevent child marriage:

  1. Empowering girls with information, skills and support networks
  2. Educating and rallying parents and community members
  3. Improving girls’ access to high-quality education
  4. Providing economic support and incentives to girls and their families
  5. Encouraging supportive laws and policies

Girls Not Brides are using mass media campaigns to raise awareness about general rights and laws and the impact of child marriage.

All many of these girls want is an education to create a better life for themselves and the right to be children. Education is the single largest protective factor against child marriage. A girl with some education is not only unlikely to be married at 8, 9 or 10 but is also six times less likely to be married by 18. By ensuring universal education we can help end the violations of these children’s rights.

Millions of girls don’t have a choice. You do:

Image source list: The NewsChannels NewsWomanist WorldStephanie Sinclair for the Pulitzer Center

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About Sharron Goodyear

Sharron Goodyear
Sharron Goodyear is our Wife columnist. She's married, she has three children and she has a lot of things to say about relationships and current affairs of a wifely nature. We think you're going to fall in love with her... To find out more about our contributors, visit our Community page.

One comment

  1. interesting and thanks.

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