Girls, Not Brides
February 19, 2015
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By the end of the day, nearly 39,000 girls below the age of 18 will have been married off by force to men twice or three times their age. They will have been harshly declined after pleading with their families to take them back home after their wedding. Many will have been sexually violated and forced to consummate their marriage with a man they hardly know, others with a man they had just met the day of the wedding. Each girl will have been forced to say good-bye to their childhood. Each girl will have already begun a long life of unhappiness and despair, a life in which their voices will never be heard.
This is the unsettling reality of millions of girls worldwide. According to UNWomen.org, “…more than 700 million women alive today were married as children…More than 1 in 3–or 250 million–were married before 15.” Though this is a common and unjust fate for millions of young girls, little has been done about its prevalence, allowing it to continue to steal the freedom of girls who are unable to escape its chains. It is especially hard to avoid due to the fact that the majority of female child marriage victims are married off by family members living in their own households. There are several reasons why child marriage is such a widespread phenomenon in over 100 countries worldwide. Long-standing traditions, gender roles, poverty and the possibility of security account for the many causes of child marriage.
Tradition is often hard for many to break, especially if one is worried they will face seclusion and ridicule if traditions are not practiced. This is one main reason child marriage has been thriving among cultures for generation after generation. Parents, grandparents and great-grandparents have continued the practice, and many are either extremely steadfast in keeping tradition alive or too afraid of the consequences that could result if the tradition is not practiced. To many, marrying off a female family member is the norm and is not seen as a cruel act committed against a loved one. Child marriage is ingrained in years of culture and tradition, causing it to be a rare occurrence if a young girl is not married off by family members who are strongly committed to tradition.
Perhaps one of the most unsettling causes of child marriage is a widespread view that boys are more valuable than girls. In many households where tradition and culture reign supreme, girls are viewed as a burden as opposed to boys. In order to ease this burden, girls are married off to men twice and three times their age. Impoverished families that have several children to feed, clothe and educate often turn to the option of marrying off a daughter in order to receive extra income for the family. Men interested in marrying minors pay a “bride price” or dowry to the family in exchange for the girl’s forced hand in marriage. Unfortunately, girls are seen as a convenient way to pay off debts and provide quick income for struggling families who will have “one less mouth to feed.”
Ironically, child marriage in many cultures is seen as security, ensuring that married girls will be less likely to be physically or sexually assaulted. Marrying off a young female family member ensures that the family’s honor will never be jeopardized (a woman or girl who has been raped is viewed as a stain on family honor).
The injustice associated with child marriage is overwhelming, leaving girls vulnerable to the many negative, short-term and long-term effects that child marriage has on its victims. Several King/Drew students were asked to provide some of these possible effects that child marriage has on young girls. Senior April Pearce stated that child marriage causes girls to be “less independent,” adding that, “they might be more dependent on their new husband.” She later added, “It also breaks them down emotionally because they feel like they’re basically enslaved; they’re not able to do anything they want to do and they’re basically always going to have set guidelines for them…”
This is certainly one of the most devastating effects that child marriage has on young girls, especially when they are deprived of the freedom they should naturally be granted during childhood. K/D student Bernadette Riggs touches on this restriction, stating that, “…they don’t have the chance to experience what they would normally as a child because…in the marriage you have certain priorities as a wife that you have to supply toward your husband, so they wouldn’t have the chance to actually grow up as a normal kid since they’re tied down in the marriage.”
Whitney Iruke, a King/Drew student who, during her interview, demonstrated that she is very knowledgeable about the subject of child marriage, touched on both of the points that April and Bernadette made. She states that child marriage causes a girl to “not feel confident in herself; she feels controlled.” She later adds, “…she’s never going to know who she is because she’s already starting a family at a young age; she won’t be able to enjoy that teenage-hood or anything.”
Child marriage is certainly not a practice that is advocated by these students, and they certainly cannot fathom how many people worldwide see this as a rational tradition. Senior Zianya Moran, for example, states, “…when I think about marriage, I think about family having kids. And if you think about child marriage, you think about children having children…that doesn’t sound right.”
Denying a young girl of her freedom, health, education and opportunity should never be an acceptable practice. Yet millions of girls each year begin a life in which they are forced to experience the consequences of child marriage. According to GirlsNotBrides.org:
- Girls who are married as children are more likely to be poor and remain poor due to a lack of education and economic opportunities.
- Child brides are at an increased risk of HIV/AIDS and other STIs.
- Child brides are 5 times more likely to die during childbirth.
- Child brides are more likely to describe their first sexual experience as forced.
It is clear that countries in which child marriage is prevalent are in dire need of a solution that will permanently cease the practice. But, “Despite the fact that 158 countries have set the legal age for marriage at 18 years, laws are rarely enforced since the practice of marrying young children is upheld by tradition and social norms,” according to Unicef.org. However, refusing to act is unacceptable and raising awareness is one of the first steps in finding an effective solution.
“In order to stop child marriage,” says Bernadette, “…we should give insight into what is going on and protest to spread awareness about things that happen with the marriage that is behind closed doors…Then, people will stop endorsing it.”
Though child marriage is a gigantic issue in itself, it is still part of an even bigger issue. There is a widespread perception in society that lies at the core of the child marriage problem: women and girls do not have value and do not deserve to be respected. Only when we change how we view women will we truly be able to end child marriage and other acts of discrimination against women and girls.
Child marriage ends when a movement of respect for women and girls begins. Girls are not pieces of property to be used in order to satisfy personal pleasures. Girls are not currency to be sacrificed in exchange for financial stability. They are children, not mothers. They are girls, not wives.