Ending Child Marriage is Family Planning

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.

FullSizeRender (6)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.


Multi-Sector Approach to Ending Child Marriage

From November 26-27, the African Union held the first ever Girls’ Summit on Ending Child Marriage in Africa at the Government Complex in Lusaka, Zambia. The summit was sponsored by the African Union, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), UN Women, International Planned Parenthood Foundation (IPPF), and more.

Delegates from around the world – Ministers, First Ladies, Traditional Leaders, Survivors, Activists – gathered to present research, share compelling stories, ask thought-provoking questions, and discuss how to be the generation that ends child marriage.

An estimated 1 in 3 girls is married before the age of 18. If this trend persists, approximately 150 million girls will be married before the age of 18 over the next decade, averaging 15 million girls each year. Disempowered and vulnerable, child brides are at greater risk of experiencing complicated pregnancies, gender based violence, AIDS, and poverty.

While there is much to be done, I feel there are 4 action areas in particular that are crucial in combatting early child marriage.

1. Education is key

Studies show that countries with lower rates of educated girls are more likely to have higher rates of child marriage. In Senegal, 41% of girls without education are married as children before the age of 18, while only 14% of girls with a primary education are married as children. Uneducated girls are often kept at home because their families deem their domestic skills more valuable than an education, or because school fees are too expensive. Yet, an educated girl is more likely to have higher confidence, and develop negotiation skills to decide whom and when she will marry. Incentives, such as education scholarships, subsidies for school supplies, or even payments to families who send their girls to school, could help girls obtain at least a secondary education and increase their likelihood of not becoming child brides. For example, Malawi provides free universal access to primary education as a step towards ending child marriage.

2. We need to find other ways to economically empower families and households.

In 2009, the then African Region World Bank Vice President, Obiageli Ezekwesili, declared, the face of poverty is female Poor families might view daughters as unwanted burdens, especially financially, and consider marriage a solution to push them out of the household faster. Similarly, families can gain economically through early marriage by accepting a dowry, or bride price. Economically empowering households can curb the motivation for child marriage. In turn, eliminating child marriage would steady population growth and lead to increased earnings for women, likely through higher education achievement. In Niger, the country with the highest prevalence of child brides, eliminating child marriage could result in a 5.7% increase in Gross National Income (GNI) by 2030.

3. Everyone must be involved, including traditional leaders.

A particularly encouraging session at the summit, “Celebrating Success: Case Studies of Communities That Have Made Commendable Change,” outlined how traditional leaders are making an impact in the movement to end child marriage. In 2013, the Zambian Ministry of Chiefs and Traditional Affairs launched a national campaign to empower traditional leaders to end child marriage. Because these leaders are highly revered, they hold prominent influence in their chiefdoms. Zambian chiefs shared their success stories of banning child marriage in their chiefdoms, rescuing girls and boys from early marriages, appointing women to leadership roles, and banning traditional alcoholic beverages that are involved in the cycle of early marriage.

4. Above all, we must value the girl child.

It is easier to marry off our daughters when we do not value them. Child marriage is acceptable when cultural customs and traditions allow us to keep the girl child from receiving an education or marry her off for financial gain. Empowering young women can alleviate health systems, reduce poverty, and increase contributions to the global economy. The world cannot prosper when girls are side-lined.

Featured Image: Jessica Lea/Department for International Development from DFID – UK Department for International Development


My New Year’s Wish

Last night at a holiday party, amid Christmas cookies and carols, I was thinking about child brides. To be honest, I didn’t want to think about child brides; I just wanted to enjoy the party. But child marriage became personal to me in Ethiopia. Since that moment I’m constantly aware of how very interconnected my life is with that of the millions of girls forced into marriage.

Child marriage became personal when I was conducting a life skills program with young women. After asking about the women’s expectations, one particularly engaged woman stood up and told her story. Married around age 11, she was repeatedly raped and beaten by the man who is still her husband. “I just want to know,” she said with a firm but emotional voice, “how to make my life bearable.”

About two years after her marriage, she gave birth to her first child. I estimated ages, figuring that she must be somewhere between her mid-twenties and her early thirties. Then I came to a haunting conclusion: this woman was my peer.

To me personally, the greatest injustice remains that we stood side-by-side in Ethiopia, me with my life of dignity and she, in her own words, “with no life at all.” What would her life look like if she wasn’t forced to marry? If she wasn’t forced to get pregnant? If she was able to go to school and make her own decisions?

Her life just might look a lot like mine.

As 2016 approaches, I’m asking myself how we as a global community can help current and former child brides create lives of dignity among the most undignified circumstances. We must continue to work to end child marriage, but we can’t forget the millions of girls and women for whom that end is too late. Ejected from their familial homes and forced to live in a marital prison, child brides have voices that we aren’t hearing. My New Year’s wish is that 2016 is the year that we starting listening.

In 2016 nothing will change for child brides unless we decide to take action. Through social media we can hold humanitarian organizations accountable to this population while supporting those who are acting. The TESFA program, funded by the Nike Foundation and implemented by Care International, is working with married adolescent girls in Ethiopia. Your support, whether through a donation or through a tweet, tells Care that we are behind them. More importantly, it tells the world that we are behind child brides, that our humanity is interwoven with theirs, because we could have shared their destiny- and they should have shared ours.

Photo Credit: UNICEF

When eating evokes a revolution


Photo Credit: Ashley Lackovich-Van Gorp
Photo Credit: Ashley Lackovich-Van Gorp

One breezy day I sat with a group of 15 women in Ethiopia. Hugged by blue skies and green grass, to an outsider our circle conversation seemed more like a picnic than a session on how to mitigate domestic violence. Each one of these women, with their toothy smiles and brightly colored headscarves, were married as children and now struggle to create a home where they are safe and secure.

Suddenly one woman spoke up in frustration. Married at age 10, she was now 30 and exasperated by 20 years in a marriage filled with sexual and physical violence. “I just want to know,” she said with a cracking voice, “how I can make my life bearable.”

Child marriage is a lifelong tragedy.

A child wife is caught in a vortex of vulnerability. When a girl marries, she stops attending school. She moves out of her home and away from the people she knows and trusts. Since most marriages in Ethiopia are arranged, often girls do not know their husbands before their wedding. And husbands tend to be much older. Once I encountered a 12 year old bride who became the third wife of a man with wrinkles and grey hair. As another man explained to me, “the husband is older because he has to train his wife to be good.” When asked to define good, he replied, “obedient, quiet and attentive.” How? “Through discipline,” he affirmed. “She must know her place.”

Within this vortex of vulnerability, child brides are raped. A Population Council survey in seven regions in Ethiopia found that over half of both male and female respondents between the ages of 15 and 24 believe that it is a man’s right to have sex with his wife whenever he wants. Even if a child bride consents, the power structure within the marriage, especially if the wife is a child and the husband an adult, makes the act of consent questionable at best. An 11 year old bride, for instance, has neither the maturity nor knowledge to provide free, prior and informed consent to marriage or sex.

As the girl grows up, the marriage remains the same. The household norms and dynamics do not change because the husband raised his wife to comply. Ultimately, when a girl is married, she is ushered into a lifetime of disempowerment, abuse and vulnerability.

So what can we do?

I just gave a talk at Antioch College, the school that Gloria Steinem recognized for its verbal consent policy, on my work with child brides. I made clear that, while we must stop child marriage, we can’t forget the 39,000 girls who are married every day. I stressed the need for life skills programming to teach child brides skills such as assertiveness, critical thinking and negotiation – typical skills that they were unable to develop under their husband’s authority. “But what these girls and women really need,” one student said, “is a divorce.” Yet, given the poverty and inequality, often divorce isn’t an option.

The student then asked what empowerment looks like for a girl or women trapped in a marriage.  I recalled a conversation with a former child bride who explained how her life improved since she started attending life skills programming. In her household, her husband and male children eat first, and she and her daughters eat the leftovers. “Now I sneak food between meals,” she whispered. Sneaking food, however humble and simplistic it may seem, is a defiant and dangerous act of rebellion. “If we all sneak food,” she whispered again, “we can really start a revolution.”

I believe in this revolution.

Right now, a safe passage from girlhood to womanhood is a privilege. Until we make this privilege a right for all girls, we must keep working with those married as children, forging these small victories. Empowerment is relative. We can’t bring girlhood back, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make womanhood something more than bearable.

“A girl should be seen, not heard…”

I grew up hearing this statement.

When I asked my mother why I could not express myself, she would say, “In our culture, girls have to be ladylike.” I hated this word and the ‘ladylike’ behavior that I had to possess one hundred percent of the time. As I grew older, I learned that this statement reinforced the gender stereotypes that existed in our society. It is these stereotypes that are prevalent in many societies and lead to gender discrimination.

Gender discrimination means girls and women are denied their inalienable human rights, are abused, violated and ignored. Globally, it is estimated that 66 million girls are currently out of school. It is widely believed that a woman’s place is in the home. Many fathers believe it is pointless to send their daughters to school. Even if a girl wants to continue her education, societal norms and traditions she has grown up with, pressure her to stay home. However, this is changing and more girls are fighting to stay in school.

Photo Credit: DFID UK, Flickr Creative Commons
Photo Credit: DFID UK, Flickr Creative Commons

Gender discrimination means that 14 million girls are coaxed, coerced or forced into marriage before their 18th birthday. One in three girls in the developing world is married before she is 18. One in seven marries before reaching the age of 15, some as young as five. The implications of Early and Forced marriage (EFM) are horrendous. We are familiar with the Yemeni child bride who died on her wedding night due to internal bleeding. Her husband was a man five times her age – old enough to be her father.

Other effects of EFM include:

Domestic violence: Women who marry younger are more likely to be beaten. Their husbands view them as property because, in many cases, they paid a bride price for them.

Poor sexual and reproductive health: Child brides are more likely to contract HIV because it is likely that their husband have had more sexual partners.

Illiteracy and lack of education: Girls often drop out of school in preparation for marriage, and it is unlikely that their husbands will send them to school as childbearing and rearing are seen as the next step.

Total lack of independence, freedom and rights

Due to the belief that a girl should be silent, most girls do not have a choice in decisions which affect them. These decisions are life-changing and even though she may be against these decisions, she will not dispute them.

What if we lived in a world where girls are seen and heard?

Imagine a world where girls have the ability to make choices and to speak up about issues that affect them. We could see more girls fighting to stay in school! Girls in their local communities would have freedom to speak more about issues such as Early and Forced Marriage, educating those in their societies about the dangers and pushing for change. Girls can break gender stereotypes that exist in their communities and become stronger, more independent women who are ready to move themselves from a life of poverty into a life of opportunity.

The key to breaking gender stereotypes and reducing gender discrimination is by educating girls. When girls are educated, they are more confident to express their views. They believe in themselves and most importantly, they dream big and are determined to conquer the world.

Raise your hand for girls’ education.

Sponsor a child.

Tell a girl her voice matters.

Cover Photo Credit: Vic Xia, Flickr Creative Commons