One breezy day I sat with a group of 15 women in Ethiopia. Hugged by blue skies and green grass, to an outsider our circle conversation seemed more like a picnic than a session on how to mitigate domestic violence. Each one of these women, with their toothy smiles and brightly colored headscarves, were married as children and now struggle to create a home where they are safe and secure.
Suddenly one woman spoke up in frustration. Married at age 10, she was now 30 and exasperated by 20 years in a marriage filled with sexual and physical violence. “I just want to know,” she said with a cracking voice, “how I can make my life bearable.”
Child marriage is a lifelong tragedy.
A child wife is caught in a vortex of vulnerability. When a girl marries, she stops attending school. She moves out of her home and away from the people she knows and trusts. Since most marriages in Ethiopia are arranged, often girls do not know their husbands before their wedding. And husbands tend to be much older. Once I encountered a 12 year old bride who became the third wife of a man with wrinkles and grey hair. As another man explained to me, “the husband is older because he has to train his wife to be good.” When asked to define good, he replied, “obedient, quiet and attentive.” How? “Through discipline,” he affirmed. “She must know her place.”
Within this vortex of vulnerability, child brides are raped. A Population Council survey in seven regions in Ethiopia found that over half of both male and female respondents between the ages of 15 and 24 believe that it is a man’s right to have sex with his wife whenever he wants. Even if a child bride consents, the power structure within the marriage, especially if the wife is a child and the husband an adult, makes the act of consent questionable at best. An 11 year old bride, for instance, has neither the maturity nor knowledge to provide free, prior and informed consent to marriage or sex.
As the girl grows up, the marriage remains the same. The household norms and dynamics do not change because the husband raised his wife to comply. Ultimately, when a girl is married, she is ushered into a lifetime of disempowerment, abuse and vulnerability.
So what can we do?
I just gave a talk at Antioch College, the school that Gloria Steinem recognized for its verbal consent policy, on my work with child brides. I made clear that, while we must stop child marriage, we can’t forget the 39,000 girls who are married every day. I stressed the need for life skills programming to teach child brides skills such as assertiveness, critical thinking and negotiation – typical skills that they were unable to develop under their husband’s authority. “But what these girls and women really need,” one student said, “is a divorce.” Yet, given the poverty and inequality, often divorce isn’t an option.
The student then asked what empowerment looks like for a girl or women trapped in a marriage. I recalled a conversation with a former child bride who explained how her life improved since she started attending life skills programming. In her household, her husband and male children eat first, and she and her daughters eat the leftovers. “Now I sneak food between meals,” she whispered. Sneaking food, however humble and simplistic it may seem, is a defiant and dangerous act of rebellion. “If we all sneak food,” she whispered again, “we can really start a revolution.”
I believe in this revolution.
Right now, a safe passage from girlhood to womanhood is a privilege. Until we make this privilege a right for all girls, we must keep working with those married as children, forging these small victories. Empowerment is relative. We can’t bring girlhood back, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make womanhood something more than bearable.