In Canada, weddings are a celebration of love, hope and commitment. However, for millions of girls in developing countries, marriage isn’t a dream; it’s the beginning of a nightmare.
Malado Ba, an 11-year-old girl, is engaged. In two years, she will wed her cousin, who is five years her senior. She was promised to him at birth. Malado has no say in the matter. This is the custom among her people, the Peul, here in Mauritania, West Africa.
Malado will drop out of school to care for her husband as is typical with her fellow child brides. Her life will unfold much like that of her mother, Boula, 42, who married at 14 and has had 13 children. In Mauritania, nearly a quarter of women have their first child before the age of 15 and over half have their first child before age 18.
A protective, slightly overbearing mother, Boula hesitates to let Malado discuss her views about marriage. “Why ask her what qualities make a good husband?” she says. “I’ll tell you. He’s someone who feeds and clothes his wife and children.”
Malado blushes and offers no comment. She is discouraged from speaking up. She has no voice in this culture, even about her own future. Malado is not alone. Today half of all girls in many developing countries are married by age 18.
For these girls, marriage often means going to live with a man they hardly know who is old enough to be their grandfather. It marks the end of their schooling. It commences a lifetime of domestic and sexual subservience. It means premature pregnancies and in many cases, early death.
Child marriage devastates the psychological and physical well-being of young girls. Many suffer emotional trauma from the shock of leaving home and being forced into a relationship too early. And when an adolescent becomes a mother, her health and that of her child are threatened. Teenage girls over 15 years of age are twice as likely to die from childbirth as women in their 20s, while girls under 15 are at five times greater risk. Complications such as heavy bleeding, infection, anemia, and eclampsia (pregnancy-related convulsions) can all be fatal. Good prenatal care reduces the risk of childbirth complications, but that care is not always available or affordable, especially in Africa’s rural areas.
Early marriage also means girls lose out on schooling and have few employment options, thus perpetuating circumstances that disadvantage girls. Up to 36 million girls in sub-Saharan Africa don’t attend school, many because of early marriage.
Zeinabou Rabba, 37, laments the education she lost when she married at age 12.
“I was forced to abandon my schooling,” says Zeinabou, an illiterate woman who lives in Nouakchott, Mauritania’s capital. “More than 20 years later, I’m still trying to catch up.”
At 14, Zeinabou gave birth to a son. “After two days of labour, they took the baby with forceps. I don’t remember. I was unconscious by then.” Her son survived but her husband divorced her shortly afterwards, leaving her for another woman. “My advice to young girls? Finish school so you can find a job,” advises Zeinabou. “One day your husband may divorce you and you’ll need a way to support your children.”
Informing parents about the harmful effects of early marriage and persuading them to keep their daughters in school are the first steps toward prevention. Education is vital not only to a woman, but also to her family.
While illiterate women tend to have large families they cannot support, studies indicate that literate women marry later and are more likely to have fewer and healthier children. Even a primary education is associated with lowering the rate of adolescent childbearing by an average of 35 to 40 per cent. What’s more, an educated mother will ensure that her own children are educated.
Changing traditional attitudes about the role of girls and early marriage is not easy, but it is possible. Again, education is the key.
“Educated girls have more stamina to stand up against harmful traditions, such as early marriage, instead of just accepting their fate,” says World Vision program consultant Beth Fellows. “And when parents see educated girls contributing practical skills that increase the family’s income, they are less eager to marry them off. They begin to value the girls for more than just the dowry they can fetch.”
Through child sponsorship, World Vision has organized special education programs like the one in Senegal where part-time classes, including literacy, small business training, vegetable gardening and tailoring enable girls to perform household duties and continue their schooling. Girls are also informed about their rights and are exercising them.
“I learned about the law in class, so nobody can force me into marriage now,” commented one graduate confidently. “. . . I’m a person with skills. I’m not property.” (In Senegal, 18 years is the legal marriage age but the law is seldom enforced if parents marry their daughters off sooner.)
Attitudes towards girls are also gradually changing in other West African communities. In Mali, a country with a high rate of child marriage, a video promoting girls’ education was shown in many rural villages, followed by community discussions. Girls’ enrolment rose by 40 percent.
Child marriages can be reduced through improved education for girls, increased income generation programs for poor families, and increased community awareness. In time, ne day Malado, and girls everywhere, may be able to dream about their wedding day and anticipate marriage with delight, not dread.