A 12 year old Norwegian girl, Thea, started a blog. She wrote about horses, music and friends. She took selfies with stuffed animals. Her dream was to be a veterinarian.
Thea also posted a picture of herself with her 37 year old fiancé, Geir. He towers over the middle-schooler who, despite make-up, cannot be disguised as an adult. In the picture she wears flowers in her hair.
Thea is navigating this slippery bridge between daughter and wife. She posted pictures of a woman in lingerie next to one of herself in pastel pink and blue pajamas. Looking ready for a sleepover, her face reveals confusion over the difference between cotton and lace, between girl and woman.
But Thea isn’t real. Plan Norway created her to advocate on behalf of child brides.
The campaign worked: outraged Norwegians called the police. Millions engaged on Facebook and hundreds gathered in and around the church in protest during the wedding. Plan Norway released a video of the ceremony, which shows a shy Thea shaking her head to refuse the marriage. Crowds cheered as she walked back down aisle.
I cried when I watched the wedding video. I cried because my heart swelled at the thought of a girl, even a fictional girl, taking back her girlhood. I cried because maybe concern for Thea would transfer to child brides across the globe. And I cried because I knew I was watching a fairytale.
While empowering girls is important, child marriage is an adult problem.
In reality, most girls can’t walk away from child marriage. Describing her 14 year old friend’s wedding, a girl in Ethiopia confided that, “she refused to leave her house, but her father beat her until she had no choice. She sobbed through the whole ceremony.” National Geographic Photographer Stephanie Sinclair offers a painful glimpse into forced marriage with the image of a 16 year old Nepali girl who, being carried to her wedding, throws her head back as she wails. Another photograph shows a sleepy 5 year old. Too young to understand what is happening, she remains calm as she is taken to the ceremony in the arms of her uncle.
Thea was able to refuse marriage because adults supported her decision. In the campaign to stop child marriage, the empowerment of girls only goes so far. A girl can say no, but her assertiveness is only effective if the adults making the decisions listen. Ending child marriage is about changing attitudes that support the practice and elevating the poverty that perpetuates it. It’s about helping communities see girls as children and not marriageable mini adults. It’s about lessening gender inequality and supporting fathers who, having themselves married a child, struggle against social norms. It’s about supporting organizations such as Plan International, Care International and the Population Council. It’s about feeling the outrage that the crowds felt for Thea, and then mobilizing that outrage into advocacy. It’s about this blog, and it’s about you reading this blog and how you respond.
Thea isn’t real, but child brides are. The UNFPA says that 39,000 girls are forced to marry each day. They don’t write blogs and they don’t take selfies, but they just might be putting flowers in their hair while trying to understand how to become a wife.