Turning Young Girls into Brides

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Words || Shomapty Khandaker

Handing young children the reigns of marriage instead of toys, Shomapty Khandaker explains the impact and trauma of child marriage and why it still continues to exist in our society today. 

The semblance of who we are as individuals is closely stated to who we were and how we were treated as children. It is true to an extent that we spend our childhood in haste and when we look back one day, it is nothing but a string of blurred memories. Yet these often forgotten moments in time are what we spend the rest of our lives reacting to, either subconsciously or deliberately. 

However, what happens when the earliest of memories are the most terrifying aspect of your human existence? 

Suborna is a young girl living in the Muksudpur district of greater Khulna in Bangladesh. She studies in Year 10 and that itself is considered a miracle in her family. When she was only eight years old, her father was determined to look for a groom for her. World Vision, an organisation that works to provide child protection, education, and many other resources, had reached out to her family and made them aware of the law and legislations against child marriage. They were convinced and allowed her to go to school for a few more years until she was in Year 6. Soon enough, her family again became fixated on the idea of setting up an arranged marriage for her. Eventually, she had to elope from her parent’s home and her village to her uncle’s house further away to remain unmarried. 

Child marriage is a custom performed that arranges the marrige of two children below the age of eighteen. Girls, as young as seven and eight are also the victims of this traumatic experience. It also ensures a repetition of indigence and gender inequality to the next generation.

According to UNICEF, the areas where child marriage is the most concentrated are Sub-saharan Africa and South Asia, where 35% and around 30% of girls are betrothed before reaching the age of 18. 24% of child marriages are also found in Latin America and the Carribean, 17% in the Middle East and North America and 12% in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Poverty and economic conditions play a major role in marrying off a daughter, as she is considered a ‘burden’ since she cannot contribute to the household expenditure of the family in comparison to sons. Marriage of young girls is also justified with the idealised notion that families are saving their daughters from a life of hardship and poverty by marrying them off to more financially stable men. Additionally, child marriage also helps families from having to pay a larger sum of dowry during the wedding, as older and educated girls are less desirable in certain societies. 

In other cases, it is simply carried out as this has been going on for generations and generations and continuing the cycle is imperative to preserve the tradition. Subsequently, after girls start menstruating, they are often considered women and are then sent to the next phase in their lives as ‘wife’ and ‘mother’. Often to form economic or social alliances between families or to pay off debts, young girls and boys are also married off as well.

As reported by the International Women’s Health Coalition, the impact and consequences of this custom are myriad. At the point of marriage, childhood ends for both the bride and groom. When the girl has household responsibilities, it reduces her chances of education and elevates the risk of domestic violence in her life along with recurring pregnancies at a premature age, which endangers her life. Furthermore, child brides are more vulnerable to HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases due to the lack of understanding about sexual protection.

The problems do not only impact the young girl but any children she gives birth to; the babies of child brides are 60% more likely to perish in the first year they are born in contrast to babies born to women who are above 19 years of age. The child bride’s family is also likely to be sickly, feeble, and impoverished.

UNICEF and UNFPA united in 2016 in the form of ‘a Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage in 12 countries with the highest rates of child brides.’  This programme has been executed in South Asia in Bangladesh, Nepal, and India. It hopes to bring together sectors which include health, education, and protection of children along with clean water and hygiene which would work to achieve their objectives. Another organisation working tirelessly towards the prevention of this custom is Girls Not Brides, which is a global partnership that has over 1300 organisations in more than 100 countries to end child marriages and let young girls have the chance to live up to their potential.

According to UNICEF, more than 115 million boys are married globally before they reach 18 and even though the types of consequences adhered by girls and boys due to child marriage are not the same due to biological and social differences, they still violate human rights. Child grooms are also coerced into taking adult responsibilities with the sacrifice of their childhood. The marriage may result in having offspring and the young boy being pressured with having to deal with its economic repercussions and that of being a parent which can also affect the development of education and career. The countries that are abundantly high in child marriage for boys vary from those that have a high density of child marriage for girls.

Being a child one day and ending up married the next, a concept which may even be lost on the child, it is crucial to understand what the child must feel to live a life that was decided by others at the time when school and playing with toys is all that mattered. The parents of these children often tend to believe they are doing what is best for their offspring and their families.

The traumatic experiences that these young girls and boys face will be forevermore; the consequences of which they will deal with always- be it lack of education, poverty, health, or raising children while they themselves are growing up.

Suborna is now fifteen years old and is a child forum member of Muksudpur Area Development Programme (ADP) of the organisation in Bangladesh that saved her future and possibly her life, World Vision Bangladesh. She continues to learn about the impact of child marriage with her friends and envisons a world where it will not destroy any more lives.

She has prevented the marriages of many young girls along with her ‘Bandhan’ child forum members and has encouraged them to go back to school. She aspires to be a teacher in her village one day. 

World Vision has made my parents be proud of me. I finally made my father understand that his daughters could be his support in old age. And I succeeded. My youngest two sisters are now also going to school,” Suborna has animatedly reported back about her life.

From running around on the grass one day to raising their own children the next, will young girls finally have a chance to seek a better life where they are not considered a ‘burden’ based on their gender? 

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