It has been almost three years since Nujood Ali's story made headlines around the world. The ten-year-old arrived in a Yemen courthouse seeking to end her unwilling marriage to a man three times her age. “I want a divorce,” she told a judge.
A sympathetic judge granted Nujood a divorce in 2008. Since then, however, the tragic reality of child marriage continues to be exposed in nations like Afghanistan, Yemen, Ethiopia and numerous other countries.
“Parents choose to marry off their daughters early for a number of reasons,” according to a UNICEF article on child marriage. “Poor families may regard a young girl as an economic burden and her marriage as a necessary survival strategy for her family.” Some parents in developing countries think that an early marriage is the best protection against sexual assault, and a way to ensure that their daughter will be cared for. “[An early] marriage may also be seen as a strategy to avoid girls becoming pregnant outside marriage.”
Underlying Reasons for Child Marriage
Poverty is a leading cause of child marriage, according to international relief organization World Vision. In a report titled Before She's Ready, World Vision notes that parents who are unable to provide the basic needs for their daughters will often marry them off early to ensure that they are provided for.
But another, more sinister reason often lurks behind the marriages of thousands of innocent children: that of the bride price. According to the World Vision report, “In many traditional sub-Saharan African communities, the bride’s family receives a 'bride price' in the form of cattle from the groom or his family,” This is a widespread practice throughout Africa. But, as the report states, “What once may have symbolized a token of appreciation to the bride’s family has in many circumstances become a transaction. Some fathers view committing their daughters to marriages as an opportunity to increase household wealth and build alliances.”
Severe Health Risks
Whatever justifications parents claim for the practice, child marriage poses physical dangers to its young victims – especially when husbands like Nujood’s demand conjugal “rights.”
At the 2009 launch of the annual "The State of the World's Children" report, UNICEF's Karin Hulsof remarked on the tragic health risks faced by child brides. According to Hulsof, these girls "become mothers long before their bodies are physically mature for pregnancy,” causing increasing the risk of death for both mother and infant.
"The younger a girl is when she gets pregnant,” Hulsof adds, “the greater the health risk to her and her child.”
UNICEF also cites health problems a higher mortality rate for child brides and their infants, and an increased risk for sexually-transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS.
A Widespread Issue
Despite the dangers, child brides are astonishingly common. Cheated out of childhood to pay off their family's debt or increase their parent's wealth, thousands of young girls are wed each day to men twice and three times their age. Organizations like World Vision are committed to ending the tragedy of a too-early marriage for young girls. According to the World Vision report, today an estimated 3,500 girls will marry before the age of fifteen, and another 21,0000 girls each day marry before the age of 18. The report reveals that 51 million girls have already been married before legal adulthood.
The marriage of these young girls is a blatant violation of their human rights; as noted by an article on child marriage produced by UNICEF, “The right to 'free and full' consent to a marriage is recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – with the recognition that consent cannot be 'free and full' when one of the parties involved is not sufficiently mature to make an informed decision about a life partner.”
Breaking the Cycle of Child Marriage
In spite of the bleak realities faced by child brides throughout the world, there are opportunities for individuals to help break the cycle of child marriage. In countries like Afghanistan, World Vision's work includes food-for-education programs that feed families and provide incentives to keep girls in school. Finally, the tragedy of a too-early marriage can be avoided by tackling some of the reasons behind the practice: poverty, illiteracy, and the poor treatment of women in many developing countries.
Today, Nujood Ali is a beacon of hope for victims of child marriage. She has become a bestselling author, and traveled the world speaking out against the cruel practice that led her to a courthouse in Yemen years ago. Today she supports her family in Yemen, and seeks to ignite a movement empowering girls to leave their too-early marriages and start new lives. “They should not be scared of their fathers or their husbands,” she says.
Kristin Butler is a contributing writer at Crosswalk.com, where she covers topics related to human rights, religious freedom, and refugee resettlement. For further articles, visit her website at kristinbutler.net or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Resources for Involvement
World Vision Report
Before She's Ready: Fifteen Places Girls Marry by 15