We don’t know much about the lives of child brides. But we do know that married girls are often subject to sexual, physical and psychological abuse by their husbands.
Child brides are the poorest girls in the poorest communities. While culture and tradition sometimes play a role in their marriage, often they are forced to marry adult men because their families are too poor to continue to raise them.
When a girl marries, she typically leaves her parents and goes to live with her husband. Here she faces a very new reality: suddenly she is no longer being raised by her parents. Instead, her husband is raising her to be the kind of wife he desires.
If she wants to go to the market, she must ask her husband’s permission.
If she wants to listen to the radio, she must ask his permission.
And when she does something wrong, her husband punishes her. That punishment often entails violence.
Nujood Ali, who lives in Yemen, offers us a glimpse into the world of child brides. According to UNICEF 12% of girls in Yemen are married by age 15 and 32% by 18. Nujood was one of the 12%: at age nine, she was forced to marry a man in his 30s. Nujood was raped and beaten by her husband, and then beaten again by her mother-in-law when she sought her help.
Then at the age of ten, Nujood fled her marital home with the money she was given to buy bread. She boarded a bus to the capital city, asked directions to the court and then entered and asked for a divorce. With the help of the human rights lawyer Shada Nasser, Nujood was granted a divorce at age 10. But divorce isn’t an option for most married girls. They enter a violent union as children and remain there for the rest of their lives.
Globally, girls who marry before 18 are more likely to report physical and sexual violence. “Violence is a part of marriage,” one child bride in Ethiopia explained. “If my husband isn’t happy with me, he beats me. He’s been beating me since our wedding night.” In Ethiopia, sexual violence is also a marital norm among child brides. “Yes means yes,” another girl explained regarding sex. “And no means yes too.”
Even the act of marriage itself is a form of violence against girls. It’s a rupture of childhood when girls are thrown into the world of an adult before they are physically and psychologically ready. It turns marriage into a prison and mocks the concept of safety, security and dignity.
As we campaign for an end to violence against girls and women, on November 26th and 27th Zambia hosted the first African Girls’ Summit on Ending Child Marriage. Globally, organizations like the UNFPA, Girls Not Brides and the Population Council are leading the fight against this horrific form of violence. For information on what you can do, download the Girls Not Brides end child marriage campaign engagement toolkit. You can also read Nujood’s story in her book, I am Nujood: Age 10 and Divorced.
In our work toward gender equity and justice, let’s remember child brides. If we can help the most marginalized girls, we can help all of humanity.