When being a bride is not a celebration

10-chief-with-carolOn my way to work, on a crowded peak hour train, I was distracted by the headlines in a newspaper someone was reading opposite me: ‘Every 7 seconds a girl younger than 15 gets married’! Is this really happening in the 21st century? Wow.

I feel frustrated with global systems that don’t bring perpetrators of child violence to justice. I am angry that poverty and disempowerment forces these young brides to marry early. I despair that these young girls will miss out on education. Their voices silenced by violence, their lives jeopardised by pregnancy and child birth at such a young age.

According to UNICEF, more than 700 million girls today were married before their 18th birthday — and one in three of them was married before she turned 15. The girls are often forced into marriage, almost invariably to older men. We know that girls who are poor, have little or no education and live in rural areas are most likely to marry before 18.

These relationships are unequal between the man and the girl: unequal in age, wealth, and societal standing. This inequality perpetuates  an imbalance of power, which affects the way decisions are made within their relationship and in the eyes of the community. The impact? On everything, ranging from simple things as who attends to household chores and who goes to the farm to more complicated issues such as when and how often to have children, and how to spend the household income. Although a 15 year old girl may not be part of this decision making process, the impact of these decisions disproportionately affect her and changes (diminishes) her life choices.

Technology and development seem to have reached every little corner of the world, it surely should be unimaginable that something as simple as “being a child” – and not a bride – continues to be an issue in societies today? Clearly the global platforms and interventions that have existed are not enough, or haven’t been effective. Progressive policies do not seem to trickle down to actually directly benefit many of the girls’ lives.

There are some communities that have worked together to change the situation for child brides. Just a few months ago I had the privilege of meeting a traditional leader from Malawi, Chief Kachindamoto who has been working with her community for over a decade to stop child marriage. She’s on the left of the photograph, with a young girl in one of the communities in her Traditional Authority. She’s one of very few female traditional leaders in Malawi, and she has personally intervened to stop 850 child marriage cases and ensured that the girls returned to school in her community. We need more inspirational leaders like her.

We know that keeping girls in school is one of the most effective interventions we have to stop girls from becoming child brides. This is one of the reasons that we have set up the Watipa scholarship program to support young people finish school, and have the opportunity to continue their studies in higher education. We want to support young people to achieve their full potential and make a difference to their country, community and most importantly to their own lives. That will be a real cause for celebration.

Saku Mapa

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