This post is also available in: Arabic

"What do you mean you're 16?" my 12 year old self sat across the kitchen from our recently hired housekeeper, confusion plastered all over my face as a million questions raced through my mind. This was the question I asked after recalling that she had mentioned she was married a few days ago. Her name was Jameela, the Arabic word for beauty but as she sat there scrubbing our kitchen clean all I saw was exhaustion and misery, she was quite petite and dark circles invaded her eyes. I found myself bombarding her with questions but curiosity killed me and I couldn't help it. She was rather surprised that this was all new to me, she then informed me that her cousin got married at the age of nine, I did not try to hide my shock it was very evident my facial expressions gave me away. I started doing some calculations of my own, 9 years that's 3 years younger than me a wave of sadness took over my body, it felt so wrong.

That night as I lay in bed my head kept on replaying the conversation I had with Jameela, she didn’t make any of her life decisions, she didn't want to get married, her parents wanted her to get married, she didn't want to work, her husband wanted her to work, she wanted to continue her education but she was denied this basic human right. I found myself furious, my mind wandering to the person she was before marriage, the person she could have become but never had the chance to and the many girls who go through similar situations. For some reason I started comparing her to my grandmother. My grandmother is one of the few people I know who got married at a very young age. She is a woman who has dedicated her life to her husband, her in laws and her daughters, exchanging her education for all of that. I knew it was wrong, they weren't in the same boat, nevertheless I compared anyways. Then my thoughts started expanding about the concept of child marriage, it was so common it happened in different households for different reasons and different beliefs but it still happened and the thought was very foreign to me.

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Image: girlsnotbrides.org

Girls like Jameela get married because of poverty, her family could no longer feed another mouth and her husband was looking for someone to attend all of his desires, it didn’t matter who it was or what she wanted, all that mattered was that her family was willing. This is a form of modern day slavery which is completely normalised and legalised in my country and many other countries as well. Both girls and boys can be victims of child marriage but girls have always been a minority making them the ones who are more likely to get harmed because of the marriage. Internationally, there are more than 650 million women who married before they turned 18, when you take a look at the countries with the highest rates of child marriage they also have something in common besides that, they all have extremely high poverty rates which further proves that one of the causes of child marriage is economic instability. The country with the highest rate in child marriage is Niger which also happens to be one of the poorest countries in the world, with 76% of its population married before the age of 18.

Women like my grandmother married at a young age for many different reasons, such as traditions, connections between the two families or even for the sake of gender roles in this messed up society. Whatever the reason was, it caused the lives of young girls to go to waste, even if they were unaware of it. In Sudan 1 in 3 girls are married before the age of 18; which is 1 in 3 girls who are disempowered and oblivious of their rights to education, health and safety.

What people in third world countries cannot accept is the fact that girls below the age of 15 have very high risks of dying in child birth and will be victims of pregnancy related injuries because their bodies have not developed completely and cannot endure the pain that comes along with pregnancy and child birth. Moreover child brides are not exposed to the idea of safe sexual intercourse, therefore making it more likely for them to catch HIV and increasing the probability of developing an STD. Usually young married girls have more kids because they are not permitted by their partners to use contraceptives, or it may not be accepted due to cultural or religious beliefs. Young girls are considered weak and helpless which makes them alluring to grown men who commit paedophilic acts, and domestically violate girls in the name of religion, culture and traditions.

Besides damaging and risking the girls' health, projecting them into domestic violence and reducing their chances of a better future, the idea of girls abandoning their education and childhood to take care of a man and kids negatively affects our society as a whole. The children of the upcoming generation need to be raised by educated and open minded parents and a nine year old can't offer them that.

To sum up, the physical and psychological damage that these children undergo is unheard of and completely disregarded. Child marriage is an atrocious act but forced marriage is indeed a form of slavery that is yet to be abolished. It puts our society and children in danger, discouraging one woman's intelligence can scar us for years and years to come, for the future is female and change comes from within.

 

 
 


Rajaa Kamal Hassan

Writer from Sudan