‘I was married when I was very young,” says Maria, 14, pictured here. “I used to sell milk to get food and sleep in the forest because I [didn’t] have a place to sleep. Society should stop bad practices, because what I have been through was so hard for me. After my education, I would like to be a nurse so that I can help other girls like me.” Photo credit: Modestar, age 12/Too Young To Wed
My dream is to end child marriage. I know it sounds naïve, but I refuse to believe that we can do nothing to keep children away from the bedrooms and kitchens of adult men. I advocate determinedly against the practice, often working directly with at risk adolescent girls in communities across the globe. Part of my dream is that those girls escape child marriage and then, empowered by their own story, join the fight to end the practice.
I saw a bit of my dream manifest when I met Isatou Jeng at the 2016 Women Deliver Conference.
Isatou is from the Gambia. Her father died when she was three and her mother raised seven children on the money she earned by selling vegetables. Then, at age 15, Isatou became pregnant. Her outraged uncles tried to force her into marriage. “When a teenager gets pregnant they send her away,” she explained. “But I refused.” With the support of her mother, Isatou stood up to her uncles. “I escaped child marriage,” she said firmly. Then she repeated as if still in disbelief:
“I escaped child marriage.”
Isatou’s story may sound simple, but when girls leave a marriage they are often thrown out of their homes and shunned by their families. Christina Piaia, Director of Projects with Too Young To Wed, described a group of girls in Kenya who had escaped child marriage. “Most of them live in boarding houses,” she recalled.
Although Too Young To Wed is known for Stephanie Sinclair’s haunting photos of child brides, the organization works to protect girls’ rights and end child marriage. In partnership with the Sambura Girls Foundation, in January they conducted a photography workshop for ten girls between the ages of 11 and 14. Some were former child brides; others fled before their wedding.
The girls took pictures of each other and used photography “to tell their stories- stories that had never been told before- in a safe and comfortable way.” Then at a local photo exhibition the girls presented their photographs to the community. In a sense, they were holding the community accountable for enabling this practice. “They know,” Christina explained, “how many other girls are out there and still in a marriage.”
Recognizing the power of individual stories, Too Young to Wed provides an outlet for former child brides to advocate against the practice through pictures. The photographs also humanize the numbers. “Every two seconds a girl is married,” Christina explained. “That’s an actual girl. She has a personality. A story. Aspirations.” Isatou confirmed that “she who knows it feels it first.” Her organization, The Girls’ Agenda, seeks to empower girls through education.
Isatou and Christina share my dream of ending child marriage. By talking to them, I’ve come to understand that those of us who know about the practice owe it to the world’s girls to hold tight to this dream, no matter how distant or naïve it seems. “Girls,” Christina explained, “dream big. And so do we.”
For more information on how you can help us realize the dream of ending child marriage, check out Girls Not Brides, a global partnership of civil society organizations committed to ending child marriage and enabling girls to fulfil their potential.
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