AS far as Selam knew, it was just an ordinary dinner party at her home in Ethiopia. She had spent the whole day helping her parents prepare for the guests.
There was cooking to do, water to fetch, cleaning to finish. It didn’t occur to her to ask what the occasion was. It certainly didn’t occur to her that by nightfall, she would be a stranger’s wife. After all, she was just 11.
It was only after the guests arrived that Selam’s father took her aside and explained that tonight was her wedding night. Panicked, she tried to run away, but her parents were ready for that. They pulled her back in the house and forced her to stand silently during the wedding ceremony.
At the end of the evening, she left her home to move into her in-laws’ house in a village she’d never been to — or even heard of — far from her friends, her family and her school.
This devastating story is one that repeats itself over and over. Every year around the world, nearly 14 million girls become brides before their 18th birthday. Globally, one in three girls are married by the time they turn 18.
We often think of child marriage as a social issue or a human rights issue. It’s even codified as a human rights violation by the United Nations.
But increasingly, the world is starting to recognise it as an economic issue, too. Families and nations deserve to know the true price of child marriage.
Selam (whose name I’ve changed here) lives in the Amhara region of Ethiopia, where rates of child marriage are among the highest in the world. In Amhara, 56 per cent of girls are married by their 18th birthdays. Half of those girls are married before they turn 15.
When parents of girls like Selam choose to marry off their daughters, they believe they are doing it for good reasons: to forge an important bond with another family, to protect their daughter’s safety or for a dowry that means a lot to a family living in extreme poverty.
To these families, marrying off a daughter appears to offer a clear and immediate gain. But what’s harder to see are the long-term social and economic ramifications for their communities.
While I was in Amhara last winter, I met Selam and other young girls in her position to learn about what their lives are like, and what they hope for the future.
The thing that struck me most was how desperate they all are to stay in school. A young bride — so small she looked no older than 8 — told me she knows that education is the only path out of her village and its poverty, but she fears that now that she is married, that path is closed to her.
Many of the girls shared similar concerns and told me of their worries that they will be doomed to the same life of destitution and struggle as their parents.
Indeed, the evidence bears this out. When girls are pulled out of school to become wives, they typically lose the opportunity to earn decent wages and contribute to their community’s economy.
When they start getting pregnant as teenagers, they tend to have more children than their families can afford to feed and educate. Their own health suffers, and so does the health of their children. These young brides are not only trapped in a marriage, but also in a vicious cycle of poverty that hinders them, their families, their communities and their countries.
Yet, even in the face of this enormous and complex challenge, there is reason for optimism. In July, the Girl Summit in the United Kingdom brought together leaders from around the world to pledge to end child marriage in a generation.
Advocates tell me they feel like we’re reaching a global tipping point. Organisations like Girls Not Brides and the Population Council are doing extraordinary work with families, including fathers, in areas where child marriage is increasingly prevalent in order to help them find ways to shift cultural norms and keep their daughters unmarried longer.
And champions are emerging. For instance, the Ethiopian government is taking steps to educate communities about the costs of this harmful traditional practice, providing incentives for families to keep girls in school and implementing various legal measures to end child marriage.
Still, laws are not enough to end a deeply entrenched cultural practice; these measures will take time, which is something that girls like Selam don’t have.
We cannot forget the young brides whose lives are unfolding right now and who need our support right away in their new marriages. One way we can take action immediately is by ensuring that these girls have the information and the contraceptives they need to delay having children until they are physically and emotionally ready.
For many young brides, having the option to delay their first pregnancy is truly a matter of life and death.
Pregnancy-related deaths are the leading cause of mortality among girls between the ages of 15 and 19 in low- and middle-income countries. Because their bodies are not yet prepared to bear children, girls in that age group are twice as likely to die during childbirth in comparison to young women between the ages of 20 and 24.
They also face a much higher likelihood of suffering from fistulas, a hole in the birth canal that can cause incontinence so severe that women and girls are cast out of their families and communities.
When I asked the young brides in Amhara when they want to have their first child, all of them told me that they hope to wait until they’re at least 20. Many of them are having sex with their husbands already, though, and only some are using contraceptives.
By ensuring that families understand how risky it is for young girls to have children, and by working with communities to make sure that girls can plan their families, we can offer them another chance to break the cycle of poverty.
On the night of her marriage, Selam felt very alone. Today, we can stand with her by giving young brides the support they need — and by working together to insist that hers is the last generation of girls forced to become brides. NYT