CHILD BRIDES: Fate sealed by early marriages.
Story by: Frederick H
Shamim was raised in a rural homestead accommodating a series of households in Kabarole-Uganda. A part from her biological mother, she has three other ‘mothers’, each with her own household, sharing the same homestead. Like any other girl in the era of Universal Primary Education and Universal Secondary Education, always thought she would be going to school at 14, always thought she would have years before she had to take care of any man as husband. But here she is, grappling with the ugly head of reality, her school days are over. Shamim’s father, Abdalla Mohamed, a man approaching 55 is a well-known muezzin in the village, for all these years, he has charged himself with the duty of calling Muslims to prayer from the minaret of the main mosque – a strict subscriber to the faith. At 14 years, Shamim has already been a wife for five months, her husband, a 60 year old local cattle merchant. With the flourishing cattle business, comes wealth. On the day her childhood ended, her mother lied to her and all the other ‘mothers’ echoed the lie. She told her, she was preparing for a religious Islamic celebration, but it was not what she claimed. Marriage was the last thing Shamim expected, she did not know what it meant, but she was sure, she did not want it. Her parents were convinced that marrying her off would lessen the burden of looking after the rest of the male children in the home. The young girl had never seen her husband before, even when she felt no love for him and had not consented to the union, her parents had already decided her fate.
Before the marriage ceremony, Abdalla Mohamed and his wife, Shamim’s parents disagreed over a few details, but agreed to one thing, Shamim was to be married off. Time and again, her mother told Shamim’s other ‘mothers’ how she wished her girl could marry a man of about 50. She believed, at this ripe age, the man would live longer to take care of her. The three women always reminded her of how wealthy the 60 year old was. All Abdalla Mohamed cared about was the fact that, the 60 year old in-law was a Muslim and wealthy – dowry is all he wanted. With this, he believed the future of his homestead was secure. In reality Shamim’s heart is bleeding, her matrimonial pillow is full of tears, even when her matrimonial home has all basic necessities. So often she stands outside the gate of the matrimonial home to watch her former classmates walk to school and play in cliques, to her the dream that she held dear is shattered. Shamim spends most of her days taking care of her matrimonial home and preparing meals for her husband. In reference to her five months of marriage, Shamim had this to say about one particular day she wishes to forget, “I cried the first day I had sex, the pain was unbearable, I did not know what it was supposed to be like, it is not good to get married so young, because a girl will be forced to have sex with her husband and she will be hurt.” Well experts will tell you, this hurt comes in many categories.
Globally and locally, there are several laws and policies that prohibit child marriages. Article 16 (2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) states that “Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.” Therefore anything short of this is a violation of human rights. Child marriage denies girls their rights to health, education, and to choose when and whom they marry. Secondly, the Convention on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the most complete international bill of rights for women, states that ‘any betrothal or marriage of a child should not have any legal status.’ The Committee that monitors this convention states further in General Recommendation 21 (Article 16(2)) ‘ that the minimum age for marriage for both male and female should be 18 years, the age when “they have attained full maturity and capacity to act”. It is common knowledge in Uganda that most laws and policies have remained on paper. Many relevant policies and laws have remained hidden in sophisticated foreign languages and have not been translated into the various local languages. To a greater extent many locals have stuck into thinking that their cultural practices and customs are supreme. Article 31 of the Uganda constitution spells out the rights of a family and specifically emphasizes in Article 31(1) and (3) that men and women of the age of eighteen years and above, have the right to marry and to found a family and are entitled to equal rights in marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution. This strictly prohibits child marriage.
In certain societies in Uganda, and other parts of the world, still rooted in tradition, customs and culture, a man is given another wife, most cases a sister or cousin of the first wife, from the same family if the first one is dead or disabled or in case of any undesirable eventuality. In this case, consent is given either by the family or the community through elders. In communities like those in Ethiopia where child marriage is prevalent, there is strong social pressure on families to have their girls married off. Failure to conform, can often result in ridicule, or family shame. To a greater extent many customs build local perceptions on the ideal age for marriage, these include, the desire for submissive wives, extended family patterns and other customary requirements, which are all enshrined in local customs and practices. In most patriarchal societies, the role of the father to the girl is transferred to the husband and therefore, weight of responsibility of the duty of care taken off the shoulders of the biological parents. Over time, as seen in the case of Shamim, some marriages are seen as way of sealing relationships that secure finances, land and cattle for the girl’s family. With such belief strongly rooted in century old customs, many locals ignorantly ignore the prevailing law. Faced with a patriarchal society and a prevailing ignorance of prevailing laws, many families in rural areas have resorted to customs. The low levels of education have added impetus to adherence to the customs that support child marriage. Some instances involve local government officers and law enforcement personnel being reluctant to condemn these habits in their areas, since they have come to believe that it is the norm of the society in which they work. As a result, child marriages are still going on despite the existing laws and policies that prohibit it.
When we talk about child marriages, there are a series of negative consequences associated with it, they involve; physical, social implications, psychological and developmental. In such instances, a child bride is definitely forced into sexual activity with her husband, just like Shamim here was. Biologically at this early age, the child is not physically and sexually mature therefore severe health consequences. Statistically, UNICEF reveals that “girls of ages l0-14 are five times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than women aged 20-24.” With such imbalance, these young mothers face higher risks during pregnancies, such as heavy bleeding, fistula, anemia and eclampsia which contribute to higher mortality rates of both mother and child. Secondly, these child brides are more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. Being young and female in Africa is a major risk factor for infection. Thirdly, early marriage plans can also discourage a girl’s parents from educating their daughter because they believe that a formal education will only benefit her future family in law, therefore resulting into low levels of education and life skills, increased vulnerability to abuse and poor health, and therefore acute poverty. Lastly, it is a huge responsibility for a young girl to become a wife and mother and because girls are not adequately prepared for these roles, this heavy burden has a serious impact on their psychological welfare, their perceptions of themselves and also their relationship. Under such circumstances, they are more likely to suffer abuse and violence, with inevitable psychological as well as physical consequences. UNICEF presents us with the following statistics; “Worldwide, more than 700 million women and girls alive today were married before their 18th birthday. Seventeen per cent of them, or 125 million, live in Africa. More than one in three of these women and girls (over 40 million) entered into marriage or union before age 15. African child brides are most likely found in rural areas and among the poorest segment of the population. Girls in rural areas are twice as likely to become child brides as girls from urban areas. Similarly, girls from the poorest households are twice as likely to marry before age 18 as girls from the richest households.” Whereas the practice has declined in some countries like Uganda, it is still prevalent in neighboring South Sudan, Kenya, Congo etc.
Upon such a background, Prince Wako Foundation has chosen to partner with parents from all walks of life. We believe, availing them with a relevant level of education in relation to empowering their daughters will help stamp out the vice of child-marriages. With low levels of education, biting poverty and a scarcity of relevant information regarding the proven dangers of child marriages, many still think that by giving away their daughters for marriage at a tender age, they are protecting them or availing them with a source of finance, which is not true. In tackling this issue with the parents, we have categorized our practical solutions into 3, and these are currently running with different partners in different East African countries. In our engagements, we focus on empowering parents to engage in commercial activities that will enable them provide for their families. By so doing many in rural areas will not focus on their daughters as a source of dowry and thus income. When doing this, we utilize examples of families that have successful nurtured their daughters to maturity and the benefits realized. Secondly, we carry out interactive discussions both at family and community level. Sometimes in schools when both parents and daughters are in attendance. This information is passed on in the local language where parents are made aware of existing laws, policies and statistics of the recorded dangers of child marriage. With this, many parents have come to understand the disadvantages of child marriage and in some communities, elders have adjusted customary principles to fit what is right for the development of girls in their families. Thirdly we have an ongoing program where female committee members on village councils have been equipped with information to pass on to families to combat this vice. These also monitor the progress and development of girls in families in terms of education and report immediately in case of any suspicious activity of an attempt to illegally marry off a child. We also encourage them to document suspicious activities. With several other endeavors, we believe if we keep working collectively as a whole, the statistics will definitely improve.