Dropping out of Childhood: The Silent Cry of Child Brides Around the World

By Angelica Belli

“My name is Thea and I’m 12 years old. On October 11th 2014 I will get married.” A few weeks ago, a child from Norway published a blog where she described her hopes and fears about her upcoming wedding to Geir, a 37-year old man.

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Selfies and photos depicted the journey any bride-to-be undertakes, from choosing the venue to having her hair and make-up done. But when Thea tried on wedding dresses, they all fell loosely over her small body and were unreasonably long for her stature. When she asked for a chocolate cake for the reception, it was deemed unsuitable. When she realised she would have to share a bed with her future husband, she was disgusted: “does that mean we should be naked together and touch each other and stuff like that?”, she wrote. Standing in front of the mirror in her pink and baby-blue pyjamas, she wondered whether she would have to wear the sexy lingerie that everyone seemed to be showing off in all those wedding commercials, and grew more and more concerned about the intimacy that this wedding would lead to.

Her blog has received over half a million readers, with many calling the police and child protection to prevent Thea from getting married. On the day, 400 people were present at the ceremony, shouting “Stop the wedding!” and hundreds gathered to demonstrate against child marriage outside the church. Fortunately, Thea did not get married. Her blog was in fact part of Plan International’s campaign to end child marriage, which went viral on social media, reaching more than 3.5 million people via Facebook and being the subject of around 8000 Tweets.

The outrage and media attention the campaign triggered towards Thea’s marriage reached extremely high levels – higher than those received for reports by UNICEF, Human Rights Watch or Save The Children, even if they feature not one, but hundreds of testimonies of child brides around the world.

Plan’s campaign aimed at raising awareness about all the victims of child marriage globally, and it did so through a very smart and provocative feature: the use of a white Norwegian girl as the victim.

The reason why people were so shocked to see a 12-year old about to get married is because it was so close to home. Thea was like any other child we see on the street daily. She was like our sisters, our daughters, our nieces. She had an iPhone to take selfies and send Snapchats, she went to school, she liked chocolate cake, she enjoyed going to friends’ parties. She is a reality we know and we can relate to, and this is why we are so appalled when that scenario changes so drastically.

However, we merely need to push that known reality aside for a moment to realise that there are currently 700 million ‘Theas’ around the world who were married off as children, but for them, nobody was there to cry out “Stop the wedding!” Many have had to drop out of school, missing their chance of education which would empower them as women. Most of them have had no access to family planning services or contraception and are unable to negotiate safer sexual relationships. A great number of them have fallen pregnant at a very early age, becoming more vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections (including HIV) and are more likely to suffer from complications or even death from childbirth. According to UNICEF, 70,000 girls aged 15-19 die each year because of issues related to excessively early pregnancies. Child brides are very likely to be abused and exploited by their partners, and are often separated from family and friends. Their children also face major risks, since if the mother is under 18, her child is 60 times more likely to die in their first year of life than if the mother were older. Even if the child survives, they are at a high risk of under-nutrition and late physical and cognitive development.

Child marriage occurs all around the world and is most common in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Girls are disproportionately affected but boys are among the victims too. This harmful practice is rooted in tradition and culture, and is often seen as a way to protect girls from pre-marital sex and unwanted pregnancies, which would undermine family honour. It is also an important way for families to access resources such as cattle or money, since in some countries such as South Sudan, parents receive a wealth transfer through the traditional payment of dowries when they marry off their daughters. In India and Nepal, on the other hand, the dowry is the payment of cash or gifts that the bride’s family gives to the groom’s along with the bride herself. As the price of the dowry increases if the bride is not a virgin, parents marry off their daughters as children in order to pay less. Finally, poverty plays an important role as parents resort to marrying off their daughters if they are unable to support them.

Child marriage does not merely affect girls in developing countries and it is closer to home than we think. Many children who have been brought up in Britain are often taken back to their country of origin to be married off to older men, and according to an Observer investigation, a growing number of girls are now being married off in the UK itself through illegal and unregistered arrangements. According to the government’s Forced Marriage Unit, 29% of the 5000-8000 people at risk of forced marriage in England in 2012 were children.

Cathy Glass, an English foster carer and writer under pseudonym due to the sensitive nature of her work, exposes this reality in her book The Child Bride. Zeena, a British-born child from Bangladesh, was blamed for dishonouring her family after she was raped by a cousin at the age of 9 in Bangladesh, and was subsequently forced to marry a 49-year old man on her 13th birthday. After suffering serious abuse from her ‘husband’ as well as from her father and uncle, Zeena found the strength to ask for help. Thanks to her outstanding courage, together with the support received from her foster carer, a social worker and the police, her story had a happy ending despite the scars left from the many years of ill-treatment. But there are still millions of girls all around the world that are scared into not reporting, that have no one to turn to, that are too traumatised to trust anyone with their story or are brainwashed into thinking this is what they deserve.

Despite significant improvements achieved thanks to international organisations and NGOs, if progress remains at the current rate it will be unable to keep up with the growing world population and the total number of women married in childhood will rise to approximately 950 million by 2030. This cannot be an option. No child should be forced into a marriage wherever they live, whatever country or culture they are born into, whatever their religious background and whatever their family income. And while governments, international organisations and NGOs will need to scale up their efforts to end this harmful practice, we too have a duty to stand up for each and every one of these children and shout “Stop the wedding!”.

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