“I have not committed any crime. It’s her parents who gave her to me to marry” Arnold*, 16, defends himself for marrying Janet*, 11 at a police station in Wakiso District, Uganda.
Arnold married Janet last year and they were expecting a baby when a concerned nurse reported them to the police after Janet had gone for antenatal care.
“Her parents said they cannot look after her so they told me to marry her so that I can provide her with what she needs and I accepted” Arnold further states.
In developing countries like Uganda, such stories are neither strange nor breaking news. Most times, poor families find themselves at a crossroads where they cannot feed themselves and their children. The immediate available option is to marry off their girls since they are a “potential” source of income as a “market” is always available.
Three driving factors come to light from the above; poverty, lack of education and awareness and cultural norms. Be it in Uganda, Bangladesh, Niger or Paraguay, all these factors are so intertwined that they make fighting child marriage a global combat not limited to a particular community.
The figures aggregated, are overwhelming: Every day, 37,000 girls get married globally. To put this into perspective, imagine a football stadium which, on average, accommodates 35,000 people (in this case, young girls) per game getting married off every day. Or an Adele sold out music concert with an audience of young girls married off every day.
Furthermore, if the trend continues over the next 10 years, 13.5 million girls under the age of 18 will follow them. For 700 million girls and women worldwide, early, forced marriage is a reality they live with all the time. There is still a lot of work to do.
If we are to change the narrative, we need to first understand where we are coming from and where we are heading so as to find ways to challenge the status quo using a global approach but applying local methods.
To start, child marriage is deeply rooted in cultural norms but perpetuated by poverty. Girls from poor backgrounds are more likely to be married off before they reach the age of 18 than those from well off families. Many parents marry off girls simply because they cannot pay their school fees, cater for their basic needs, provide wise counsel to them or simply because they want to ‘make’ money out of them.
Consequently, effects of early marriage on girls are rarely looked at. With marriage, naturally comes pregnancy. A girl under the age of 18 is physically not yet ready to bear a child. This puts her at higher chances of getting fistula (resulting in permanent psychological torture) or even death during childbirth.
Furthermore, one thing that is widely ignored yet gruesome is sexual abuse and violence that comes with a girl’s first sexual experience. At such tender age, she is naturally afraid and not willing to have intercourse and thus she will be forced to have sex.
Therefore, child marriage limits a girl’s breakthrough in life. She loses everything when she is still young and ends up having low self-esteem. Is this what we wish for our young girls globally?
We all can do something to ensure that child marriage is reduced worldwide.
Families and communities must show value to the girl child. Communities need to be engaged to understand that child marriage robs the children of their innocence and ability to dream and create a better future for themselves.
In Uganda for example, Reach A Hand, Uganda, a youth led organization, now organizes community dialogues in the rural areas where girls are more prone to teenage pregnancies and child marriage, so as to create awareness about the evil.
During such dialogues, district leaders, religious leaders, policy makers and peer educators educate the masses on why it is wrong based on the testimonies of the young people who have gone through that ordeal. It is surprising how many people are not aware of the consequences.
Reach A Hand, Uganda with support from its partners UNFPA and Rutgers hopes to reduce child marriage by at least 10% in the next five years across the country. This is only possible if everyone gets involved.
As time slips by, another generation of girls like Janet, are being lost to child marriage globally. We can do more to help — and we should.
*Not real names