Reporting by Tenagne Mekonnen, Africa Region Communications Manager, and Priscilla Chama, ChildFund Zambia
“I hate early marriage,” says 14-year-old Meseria, who lives in Ethiopia. “Small girls are forced to get married as early as age 12 and 13, when we still don’t know anything about life. Our families get us married to someone who is four or five times our age, someone who could be our father. Imagine the fear.”
Meseria, 14, speaks on child marriage at an Africa Region meeting of ChildFund staff.
Meseria is talking about a practice that derails as many as 10 million girls a year from achieving their potential as women. Eradicating child marriage is one of many ways ChildFund works to help children achieve their potential, and Meseria is one who has benefited. To commemorate International Women’s Day, March 8, which highlights women’s achievements, current situation and efforts to improve it, child marriage is an important part of the conversation.
In the developing world, one in three girls is married before age 18 — 46 percent of them in sub-Saharan Africa, 38 percent in southern Asia. One in seven girls marries before her 15th birthday. Some of them are just 8 or 9.
Although she’s watched plenty of young friends and relatives go through with early marriages, Meseria has avoided that fate, which is why she can share what she knows. “Parents are being driven by the culture and their ignorance, and this puts our lives at risk,” she says. “They believe that girls need to settle as early as possible. They pass the message into our little minds that education is not important for girls, that we should instead get married, have children. They don’t even understand what this means.”
What it means is that girls who marry young often suffer terribly. If they’re 15 or younger, they are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s. If a girl’s pelvis is too small when she gives birth, the pressure of the baby’s head can damage her soft tissues, leading to fistula, a dangerous, humiliating and, if untreated, lifelong injury.
“I was fortunate that my parents were literate about early marriage and didn’t force me,” says Meseria.
She tells of how ChildFund collaborated with a local community partner, the government and her school to educate her community about the damage that child marriage can do. “Now, with their new eyes and heart, our parents are able to see the damage,” she says. “Today they regret what they have done in their ignorance. Now sending us to school has become their priority.”
I felt like the whole world was against me, and that was the end of all my dreams of ever completing school. — Caroline, Zambia
In Zambia, Caroline was not so lucky — her parents married her off at 16. “My family was going through hardships,” she says. “When a man came up with a marriage proposal, everyone jumped at the idea, because they thought it was an opportunity to raise money through dowry and also reduce the number of people in the house.”
No one stood up for Caroline. “I felt like the whole world was against me, and that was the end of all my dreams of ever completing school,” she remembers.
But, thanks to some young friends, her story doesn’t end there.
Caroline and Emmanuel, outside Caroline's parents' home.
Emmanuel, a member of the ChildFund-supported youth committee in Caroline’s community, heard of Caroline’s plight. “I was touched when I heard that she was married off before completing her education,” he says. “She was still a teenager with a lot of dreams and hopes for the future.”
ChildFund’s activities for children and youth include trainings in many areas, including life skills, reproductive health and advocacy, so the youth committee members knew well the harm that child marriage can cause. When Emmanuel alerted the group to Caroline’s situation, they began to strategize right away.
Although child marriage is illegal nearly worldwide, in many developing societies, statutory law is not aligned with deep-rooted tradition, and this was the case in Caroline’s and Emmanuel’s community. So the group presented the case to community leaders, who swung into action.
“When Caroline’s parents were approached,” says Emmanuel, “they were very hostile, especially as the man had already paid them. Thus Caroline’s husband was also brought in and counseled, until we finally had a breakthrough.”
Caroline remembers the day she learned she could return home and to school as “the happiest day of my life.” Last year, she sat for her grade 12 exams and is waiting to go into college. “My future is now very bright,” she says. “If I manage to get a good job, I will be able to take care of my parents and siblings.”
Her parents will now get to see what their daughter can achieve as the woman she is now free to become.
When girls in developing countries are given choice about when and whom to marry, most will first choose to complete their educations. When girls are educated, they become women who can improve the quality of life for themselves, their families and their communities. And that means a better future for all.
On this International Women’s Day, Meseria and Caroline are on their way.