But around the globe, child marriage denies girls the freedom to make their own decisions, be in charge of their bodies, and to have choices and opportunities for their futures.
Early and child marriage isn’t isolated to one culture, religion or group of people. It cuts across countries, cultures, religions and backgrounds. The root causes – which allow it to continue – are gender inequality, poverty, cultural norms and a lack of education, all of which we have the power to change.
And it’s girls and young women all around the globe who are leading the charge. Here are some of their incredible stories.
17-year-old Matu* from Sierra Leone was forced to get married when she was just 12 years old – to a man almost twice her age.
It felt like the only option for her father, a farmer, who had just lost his wife and was struggling to make ends meet.
“My family is very poor and my father had to look after not just me but my two younger brothers as well. So things were difficult for him once my mother was gone, and that is why, when a man came to him and said he wanted to marry me, he accepted.”
“I was very unhappy in my new home. When I was 13 I would go out into the street and just wander up and down, because I was so frustrated that I didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t like my home, I didn’t like my husband. I didn’t like anything.”I desperately wanted to go to school, and I was just wandering the streets in despair…
Everything changed when Matu met Aisha, a young woman who was helping girls understand their rights and the importance of returning to school. With the support from Plan International – she is now a member of the Girl Power Group where she mentors younger girls to make sure they are aware of their rights and are empowered to speak out on the issues that affect them. Matu was able to gain the confidence and support she needed to eventually end her marriage.
“Thankfully, I don’t live with my husband anymore – we have separated – but from the age of 12 until now things have been difficult.
“I want to become a lawyer so that if abusive things happen to someone like what happened to me I will be able to intervene. I will take action so that people are not able to take advantage of young girls.”
*Name changed to protect identity.
It’s not every day that a 12-year-old girl stops her own child marriage, but in northern Ethiopia, that’s exactly what Yekaba did.
Now 13, Yekaba’s story could have had a drastically different ending had she not been equipped with the knowledge, confidence and support to stand up for her future.
When Yekaba discovered, through her sister, that her father was planning to marry her off to a man twice her age, she knew she had to do something about it. Luckily, her school had a system for reporting in the form of a private box where students can leave notes for their teachers when they can’t talk to anybody else.
“I wrote down what my sister told me on a piece of paper and put it in the box at my school where students can share the things they’re afraid of.” Yekaba explains.
“My teacher found the message and asked me what was going on. He asked me to bring my parents to school so they could learn why child marriage is wrong.”
Yekaba’s mother was against the marriage, but convincing her father, Desta was more difficult, “I didn’t know that it was all wrong.” He reflects, “I wanted to get my daughter married because I’m getting old and I wanted to have a man around the place who could help me with the work – and I’m also conscious that Yekaba needs someone to give her security in the future. I won’t be able to look after her forever.”
I told my father about all the problems child marriage would cause me and also him.
“I told him everything I’d learned at school from the peer-to-peer discussion group.”
“I reminded my father of my cousin’s story. She was married at the age of 12. She had a baby when she was just 14. She’s never been to school and the baby isn’t very healthy.”
Struggling to convince her father to put a stop to the wedding alone, Yekaba enlisted the help of others in the community.
For the last two years, thanks to your support, Plan International have led a campaign in Yekaba’s rural village in Ethiopia to put an end to child marriage. Though her father wasn’t aware of the risks associated with the practice, many others in her community were – among them, a leader of the local anti-child marriage task force, her older cousin and her Aunty Ayalnesh.
“I explained to them (Yekaba’s parents) that she should not get married,” Says Ayalnesh. “That she should continue her education and that she’ll have a bright future if she does so.I told her father: “If you refuse to cancel it, I will take her and care for her as one of my daughters. And the community will turn against you.”
Finally, spurred on by his daughter’s desire to stay in school and others standing behind her, Yekaba’s father Desta made his decision. “My father eventually agreed to cancel the wedding and let me continue with my schooling. Now he is helping me pursue my education.” Yekaba says triumphantly, adding “I’m studying very hard to become a doctor.”
At the young age of 13, Sanita knew she was too young to wed and was determined to stay in school. However, she also understood her family’s financial challenge and that her arranged marriage would provide much-need financial support for her family.
To solve this, Sanita made an offer to her parents.
“I asked my parents ‘How much am I worth? If you stop the marriage and let me continue with my education, I will pay back all of the money that you spent on me.’If you force me to marry, then nothing will come of me.
Sanita argued that an education would provide her with further opportunities and a chance to have a career that would benefit her whole family. Eventually, her parents agreed.
It has now been more than a decade since Sanita stopped her arranged marriage. Now, she is a champion for girls’ rights and a role model in her community. Sanita is determined to help all girls in Indonesia reach their full potential through their education.
“Now, I want to say to girls – say no to marriage and be brave. The only solution for girls to avoid marriage is through an education… I was almost a victim of child marriage and I saw how other girls fell prey to these acts, so I thought, ‘Life should not be like this for young people. I must do something’.”
In May 2017, Sanita represented Indonesia at the Asian Development Bank’s 5th Annual Asian Youth Forum, where she urged experts and leaders to engage youth in their efforts to tackle some of the major violations that young people – particularly girls – experience in Asia and the Pacific every day.
“Before attending the Asian Youth Forum, I explained to my parents all of the things that I had been able to achieve as a result of my schooling.
I don’t think they realised, for example, that I paid for my University fees on my own, and that I was traveling to Japan to meet with members of the Asian Development Bank to promote girls’ rights.”Because of my achievements, I think my parents now understand and truly believe that they made the right decision.
Girls and young women are achieving remarkable things around the world. That’s why Plan International is working with girls in communities where child marriage occurs to make sure they know their rights. Because when we can create a better, more equal world for girls – we create a better world for everyone.
Child marriage denies girls their childhood, the chance to go to school, to be independent and to choose their own future. But you can create choices which prevent girls from experiencing the lasting trauma of child marriage. Make a tax-deductible donation today and show your commitment to ending this practice.