In my work I travel to cosmopolitan cities and remote villages to assist girls and young women in living the lives that they want- and deserve- to live. Today as I sat before an audience of activists, scholars and practitioners to present my research on child marriage at the International Conference on Family Planning, I remembered one particular encounter in Ethiopia.
I was with a team of researchers conducting interviews at a rural health post in the Amhara Region, where 50% of girls are married by age 15 and 80% by 18. Mid-day an adolescent girl who couldn’t have been older than 15 arrived. She was carrying a large clay jug of water on her back. She wasn’t part of our group, but she talked to my Ethiopian colleagues and eventually came over and sat on the grass next to me.
It turns out that this girl was looking for contraception. The previous month she was forced to marry an adult man and, since her best friend died in childbirth, she was terrified of becoming pregnant. But her husband expected children and so she sought contraception secretly, hoping that we were offering reproductive health services.
Too often health practitioners don’t know how to address the unique needs of child brides, which leaves them even more vulnerable to early pregnancy. Pregnancy and childbirth are leading causes of death for adolescent girls in lower and middle income countries. Countries with high rates of child marriage have high rates of maternal mortality. If a girl does survive, adolescent pregnancy has health complications, including anemia, malnutrition and stunting because pregnant girls are competing with their babies in their wombs for nutrition. Many child brides who survive pregnancy develop obstetric fistula, which is a severe childbirth injury that leaves the survivor incontinent.
That girl and I sat side-by-side for a little over an hour as she slowly inched closer beside me. Eventually our hands were next to each other on the grass, and then she moved her pinkie finger over to touch mine. I took her hand. And we sat like that, quietly holding hands and staring straight ahead, until she lifted that jug of water back on her back and continued her walk home.
Now, after three days of discussing programs and research aimed at ending child marriage, I’m more confident than ever that this horrific practice will end. In the meantime, whenever I’m sleeping on a chair in a random airport or trying desperately to hear my family through a bad Skype connection, I remember that girl. Today as I was about to present my own research on child marriage, I thought about holding her hand and how, in my heart, I will never let go.