MANY OF THE international news headlines in recent weeks have focused on the disturbing revelations regarding three women in Ohio incarcerated in an attic for ten years by a middle-aged bus driver who abducted them, one by one, when they were teenagers.
A disbelieving neighbour says he used to have barbecues with the guy, never in his wildest dreams imagining that three desperate young girls – Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight – were imprisoned in his house. As I followed the unfolding story and heard about the abuse both physical and mental endured by the women I was startled by the levels of depravity and brutality.
Yet, on reflection, I can’t help but contrast this headline news, the media frenzy, the furore around issues of child abuse and human rights, with the plight of teenage girls throughout many of the countries in Africa and Asia where Plan works. Teenage girls, who are openly albeit quietly being married off to older men – incarcerated, one might say – in a life they never wanted.
Child marriage figures are startling
Globally, the figures regarding child marriage are startling: 14 million girls under the age of 18 marry each year, that’s 1,166,666 a month, 269,230 a week, 38,461 a day or 27 every minute.
That’s about one girl every two seconds just like Amanda, Gina and Michelle are effectively being abducted.
Girls such Mariama (13) as who lives in a village in Niger in West Africa come to mind. She was a normal teenager, hanging out with friends and attending school until one morning last year when her mother informed her she was to be married to an older man she’d never met. When she heard this news she couldn’t stop worrying. She stopped eating and sleeping properly. She begged her uncle, who helped arrange the marriage, to be patient and let her grow up.
“I told him that I’m not ready to have sex with a man. I begged him, please – stop this marriage! I’m not eating; I can’t sleep because I keep on thinking about my new situation. I’ve been sad since the first day they told me that I wouldn’t go to school and that I am to get married.”
Mariama, 13, has been told she has to marry an older man she has never met.
“I want to learn how to read”
There’s Haoua* too, aged 15 and recovering in hospital after the painful birth of her first child. Haoua now suffers from incontinence and a fistula caused by the pregnancy that her body wasn’t ready for. She confides her feelings that marriage isn’t a happy thing and says she suffered greatly during labour.
“I don’t want to have children again,” she adds. “I want to learn how to read.”
Haoua says she would love to go back to school. “When I am in my husband’s house, the only thing I can do is the daily shop. I grind millet, cook food and do the shopping. If I had to go school, I’d be really happy. What I want to do is to learn how to read.”
Haoua (not her real name) now suffers from incontinence and a fistula after giving birth aged just 15.
Teenage girls are being married out of their childhoods
These girls’ stories, and the thousands of others from child brides around the globe are both tragically sad and distressing.
Most 13-year-old girls in the Western World are preoccupied by the latest fashion or music trends – boys and relationships are a daydream. Marriage is something their parents do in the grown-up world that they haven’t been admitted to yet.
Yet all over the developing world, young teenage girls are being married out of their childhoods, denied their right to finish school, grow up, learn, make mistakes, have their first crush and fulfil their dreams. Instead of doing all these things, they are dropping out of school and into marriage, severely limiting the kind of future life that’s available to them.
Worldwide, more than 140 million girls will become child brides by 2020 if current rates of child marriage continue, according to the UN. All over the world, child marriage is helping drive girls into a cycle of poverty and powerlessness, affecting basic human rights and drastically affecting girls’ rights to an education. Many child brides experience violence and abuse. Child brides are more likely to contract HIV, and more likely to be illiterate than their unmarried counterparts.
Plan is working to help girls like Mariama and Haoua escape child marriage
As part of Plan’s “Because I am a Girl” campaign, www.becauseiamagirl.ie, we are endeavouring to end child marriage through education. Plan projects are helping ensure that girls have safe access to free schooling and are taught by qualified teachers (especially female ones), who understand girls’ rights and gender equality. Getting girls into school, and keeping them there, may be one of the best ways to foster later, consensual marriage.
Child marriage will no longer be the default course of action for girls like Haoua and Mariama. Plan’s projects include supporting education for girls, running gender training for religious leaders, NGO partners, teachers and traditional chiefs, and supporting traditional leaders to spread the message about the effects of child marriage. Around the world, we are working to help girls like Mariama escape child marriage, complete their secondary education and fulfil their ambitions.
In Sierra Leone, Plan’s Universal Birth Registration programme, which strives to ensure all citizens can access a birth cert, mothers have now started to use birth certificates as a proof of age to protect against early child marriage.
Child marriage is a human rights issue
Let’s put early and forced marriage on the global political agenda and shock the policy makers into stopping to listen. Let’s urge governments to recognise child marriage as a human rights issue, and encourage them to implement integrated action plans to enable girls to avoid child marriage, stay in school, and benefit from a quality education. Only by doing this can we set girls free to enjoy their futures.
The cameras and media spotlight may have left Ohio, and for Amanda, Gina and Michelle their ordeal may be over. However, somewhere in the world, every two seconds, for one girl hers has just begun.
*Haoua not her real name, her name has been changed to protect her identity.