Prakash Hatvalne/AP

Child Brides Fight to Be Heard

June 26, 2009 07:30 AM
by Shannon Firth
In India, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, young girls battle age-old customs to preserve their childhoods and secure promising, independent futures.

Confronting Custom

In April of last year, Rekha Kalindi, a 12-year-old girl living in West Bengal, India, defied her parents’ wishes by refusing to get married.

When her parents told her their plans, Rekha said, “I was very angry. I told my father very clearly that this is my age of studying in school, and I didn’t want to marry,” reported The Christian Science Monitor.

Supported by friends, teachers and government officials, Rekha persevered and ultimately swayed her parents. News of her victory spread, and two other girls followed suit. Since Rekha’s refusal, no other child marriages have taken place in her village or any of the nearby towns, reported The Christian Science Monitor.

Rekha now lobbies for children’s rights. In February, she spoke before 6,000 beedi workers—beedis are a type of Indian cigarette—urging them to make education, not marriage, a priority for their children. Shrimati Pratibha Devisingh Patil, the president of India, has requested to meet her.

Girls in other parts of the world are also defending their right to independence. In Saudi Arabia this past May, a court annulled the arranged marriage of an 8-year-old girl to a 58-year-old man. In May 2008 in Yemen, 10-year-old Nujood Mohammed Ali divorced her husband—a first for child brides in the country.

Though the 30-year-old groom provided Nujood with lavish gifts before the wedding, afterward he sold the ring he’d given her and repeatedly raped and beat her, Glamour reports.

After secretly meeting with a human rights lawyer, Shada Nasser, Nujood’s trial began. When the judge asked if Nujood would consider postponing the marriage, she replied, “I hate this man … Let me continue my life and go to school.”

For their daring, both Nasser and Nujood were honored as Glamour Women of the Year. Nujood hopes to one day be a journalist or a human rights lawyer, and told The New York Times she does not ever want to get married again.

Although Nujood’s divorce was groundbreaking, traditional sharia law endures. Nujood’s family had to pay her former husband $200 for the divorce, and he was not prosecuted for the abuse, CNN reported.

Still, the significance of what Sarah Crowe, a spokeswoman for UNICEF in Delhi, refers to as “a ripple-effect,” can’t be underestimated.

Within a month of Nujood’s trial, another Yemeni girl, 9-year-old Arwa Abdu Muhammad Ali, who had also been beaten and sexually abused, left her husband. According to The Times, her case has not yet been resolved.

Video: Nujood Ali, Girl divorced at 10 in Yemen

Suha Bashran of Oxfam explained that one reason why parents choose to marry off their young children is to prevent those children from bringing shame upon them.

Bashran told CNN, “They always fear that the girl will do something to lose honor to the family. She will run to away with a guy. She will have a relation with a boy.”

Background: The tradition of child brides and the consequences for girls

While a 1992 law declared that Yemeni children younger than 15 years old could not be married, six years later the government backpedaled, allowing girls to be married at a younger age, provided they waited until after puberty to live with their husbands.

In Yemen as well as in Afghanistan, strict observers of Islam bolster their argument for early marriage by referring to the Prophet Muhammad, who married a 9-year-old. Tribal expressions support the practice: “‘Give me a girl of 8, and I can give you a guarantee’ for a good marriage,” reported The Times.

According to a study from Sana University, in farming villages, the average Yemeni marries at 12 or 13. In India, while the minimum age for a girl to get married is 18, research from the Lancet determined that half of all women are married before turning 18 and a quarter of those women are married before age 16.

Child marriage persists because of financial strain, but as The New York Times explains, when women marry young they aren’t able to receive an education, thereby continuing the “cycle of poverty.” 

According to Glamour, Yemen has a 65 percent female illiteracy rate. And a study from Harvard University found that delaying marriage for a single year is equivalent to a 5 to 10 percent increase in a girl’s literacy, The Christian Science Monitor reported.

In addition to the cost of their schooling, young brides are ill equipped to bear children at their age. Not surprisingly, according to a Sana University study, Yemen has “one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.”
Other developing countries face the same problem. Dr. Sayed Mohammad Amin Fatimie, the Afghan Public Health Minister, stated flatly: “Fifty to seventy mothers die every day from birth complications, which is a silent tsunami for Afghanistan,” according to the United Nations Population Fund. The Christian Science Monitor also cited a UNICEF report, which explained that babies of child brides are often “sicker, weaker, and less likely to survive childhood.”

In child marriages, abuse by the new husband and the child’s in-laws is prevalent, the United Nations reported. In Pakistan in 2006, Rubina Bibi, a 17-year-old bride, died following a meal with her in-laws. Bibi’s in-laws’ poor treatment of her, including forcing her to sleep in a shed for animals, drew suspicion to her death, reported the Inter Press Service.

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