I remember the first time I encountered child marriage by abduction.
I knew the statistics well: Prepared to address the issue of child marriage in a small town in Ethiopia, I sat with a group of women and sought to understand how they made sense of child brides. They gave vague answers, explaining that they had greater problems than fathers arranging the marriage of their daughters. What, I thought, could be worse than your husband willingly handing over your child to an adult man?
“Here we have abduction,” an older woman explained as her gaze shifted its focus to the ground. “It’s when a man gets together with his friends and takes a girl. His friends help him rape her and then she is his wife.” She paused for a moment, seeking words to explain the depth of this problem. “Sometimes we can keep our daughters safe from our husbands, but we can’t keep them safe from a man we don’t know.” She further explained that the men who kidnap are those who are too poor to afford the bride price. If a man cannot afford to buy a bride, he simply takes one.
Child marriage by abduction entails the kidnapping of a very young adolescent, meaning a girl between the ages of 11 and 14, by a group of adult men. They perform female genital mutilation (FGM), which marks her as married and no longer a virgin. This means that she will not be able to marry anyone else, trapping her into a marriage with her abductor. After the FGM, the abductor-husband rapes the girl and takes her to his home, where she begins her life as a child bride. Her childhood is over, her future now tethered to the man who kidnapped her, cut her genitals and raped her in front of his friends.
Child marriage is a rupture of girlhood. Now in the home of her abductor, the child bride is isolated from her family and friends and no longer able to attend school. She is expected to manage the household, including cooking, cleaning, fetching water, tending the livestock and helping with planting and harvesting. She has little control over her life and little to no power to combat the physical and psychological threats to her wellbeing. This lack of power lingers: women who were abducted as children told me that they have no agency in their marriage. They reported violence in their homes, noting that the household rules have not changed since they entered the home as children.
The UNFPA (2012) notes that solutions to child marriage entail empowering girls by building their skills and social assets, improving access to education, changing social norms, enhancing economics and generating policy. It’s a broad-based approach that focuses on preparing girls to navigate the risks of their environment while simultaneously reducing those risks. A new report from the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) shares case studies of effective programs, demonstrating girl-focused approaches in action. We are learning what to do, but the various forms of child marriage, such as child marriage by abduction, can throw a curve. While a type of child marriage, abduction is connected with trafficking and has specific nuances. Care International is one of the few organizations in Ethiopia that recognize and work against this specific practice.
Child marriage, however it occurs, is a human rights issue. To learn more, check out Girls not Brides and their over 300 partners, all organizations that are working to ensure that all girls are raised by their parents, and not their husbands.