By Paola Salwan, Programme Assistant for Africa, the Middle East and Europe at the World YWCA and co-founder of the blog Café Thawra

child_bridesAllow me to share with you a topic that has profoundly moved me. A topic so incredibly important that it got me to reconsider a lot of things that I was taking for granted, such as my right to choose what I want to do with my life or the right to an education, and value the incredible opportunities with which I have been blessed.

I’m talking here about the oh-so-horrifying issue of child brides.

I was deeply shocked by a documentary we watched at work that was aired on the TV show NOW! On PBS called Child Brides, Stolen Lives, relating the life path of child brides from India, Niger and Guatemala.

Now don’t get me wrong.

I knew child brides existed, I knew the horrors of it.

But somehow seeing the interview of these little girls sharing their hopes and dreams, after having endured the unspeakable in some cases, kind of slapped me in the face and woke me up about the issue.

So I decided to do what I could do, on my level.

Write.

From the Mormons communities of the United States, to the Xhosa realms in South Africa via the dry desert of Saudi Arabia, the problem of early marriage is a practice that plagues communities all over the planet. In its report “Early Marriage, A Harmful Traditional Practice”, UNICEF gives us a much-needed reminder on the International Law texts regulating the issue of marriage:

“The right to ‘free and full’ consent to a marriage is recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – with the recognition that consent cannot be ‘free and full’ when one of the parties involved is not sufficiently mature to make an informed decision about a life partner. The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women mentions the right to protection from child marriage in article 16, which states: “The betrothal and the marriage of a child shall have no legal effect, and all necessary action, including legislation, shall be taken to specify a minimum age for marriage.”

Why do early marriages happen? Just like female genital mutilation, early marriage is a dangerous traditional practice. Many factors lead to the perpetuation of such a tradition, including poverty, culture and beliefs, and lack of education. Although governments try to put a stop to it, communities still believe it is carved in stone and protect one another from the police and inspectors. maldaindiaGETTY070606_228x189The idea that a girl should be “protected” against herself dies hard. It is as if, in order to prevent the “dishonour” of a girl (and hence, of her family), girls had to be married as soon as possible, to make them “respectable”. Once again, women bear the burden of the millennium-old prejudice that has plagued their ancestors. This obsession with the “purity” of women is coupled with a lack of resources and poverty: the girl is considered a burden that won’t work and bring money to the household, and thus should be better off married.

This solution is naturally designed for the benefit of everyone but the child bride, who, at sometimes as young as three years old, do not understand what is happening around her.

Nevertheless, it would also be wrong to think that families that marry their girls so young are hateful psychopaths willing to get rid of their daughters: most of the times, mothers and fathers want the best for their children, and what’s the best thing for a girl? To be respectable and thus respected. They simply follow the trend to spare their children what they believe to be a shameful situation.

This practice is however tremendously dangerous on various levels. First of all, it infringes the very Human Rights of girls and young women, leaving them with very few life choices and often making them ideal preys for modern-day slavery. The girl that finds herself stranded in her husband’s community often has to become everyone’s servant and to endure ill-treatments. Besides, it harms the physical integrity of the these girls who often get pregnant and give birth at an age when their body is still developing, leading to rough complications during the birth, leaving them to endure fistula, a highly-stigmatising condition that isolate them from society, even threatening their lives.

And finally, it utterly and completely shatters their self-esteem, and their confidence in a happy marriage. Most of the girls that manage to get out of their dire situations swear that they will never marry again, that the whole experience left them feeling worthless.

So what to do? Advocacy is once again the key, coupled with skills-building and confidence-building sessions. Education programmes have to be put in place to make community leaders and parents understand that letting their daughters go to school will actually make them more productive and will allow them to bring more resources to the community, and benefit society as a whole. Awareness campaigns should be implemented to involve men and make them understand that marrying a child isn’t the right thing to do, that it doesn’t make them any more of a man.

Imagine if it were you that were abducted, and made to live with a stranger that has 10 times your age, with no future ahead of you.

I tried imagining it but couldn’t.

The courage of these little girls put me and my constant whining to deep, deep shame. Let us not forget them and work hard until we make this practice history.