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  • Foto van schrijverJaira Sona

Child marriages

Bijgewerkt op: 13 nov. 2018

Each year millions of children are forced to marry, depriving them of a childhood. Child marriage is a global issue, but occurs most in West African countries, where 70% of the population is married before the age of 18, as well as South Asia. Child marriage limits freedom, opportunities and has a negative impact on emotional and physical development. It requires system-based solutions, but for the duration there is something each of us can do about it.

The United Nations have declared that child marriage violates human and children’s rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that all human beings must enter marriage freely with full consent and at legal age. The Indian law itself states that the minimum age to get married is 18 for girls and 21 for boys. However, the laws are not enough. Their weak enforcement allows for child marriage to still remain a widespread practice. India has the highest absolute number of child marriages and is home to a third of the world’s child brides, with 55% of the population married before the age of 18.

How can we combat this violation of children’s rights? Changing cultural norms and traditions, transferring knowledge through education, effective law enforcement; all of these approaches seem to be out of our reach.

Being a child without a childhood

Children are deprived of a childhood and suffer as a result of the harm inflicted on them by being married as a child. Your childhood forms an important aspect in shaping the rest of your life. Can you imagine being married at the age of 12? Having to care for your husband or wife, when you are not even capable of caring for yourself? Children should not be tied down against their will and certainly not before the age of 18.    

The children are lacking important aspects of that life stage, depriving them from fundamental rights to health, education and safety. Being married against their will limits their freedom and options in life. It restricts them from making their own choices, excluding them from the rest of the world. Forced marriages often end in abuse, because the choice to wed comes from neither the wife nor the husband.

In this era of globalization, the contrast between the freedom of the ‘West’ and the limitations and restrictions of developing countries like India is still too prominent. Child marriage is a silent widespread practice and children are unable to raise their voices against injustices within society. Many of the child brides lack access to education. Children with no education are three times more likely to become a child marriage victim. Raising the voice of the world’s most vulnerable by sharing unheard stories and implementing a different mindset through education will prevent and combat child marriages. Media attention can raise awareness, break the silence and trigger change.

This present-day issue is very real and remains unacceptably high. Laws only provide the framework for action against child marriage. In October 2017, India’s Supreme Court finally decided that having sex with your under-aged wife constitutes rape. This ground-breaking law could be the first step towards ending child marriage on a national level. Taking action against violations of humans rights might seem out of our reach, reserved for NGOs and International Organizations, but making a change on a small level is more within our capability than we would first think. Small initiatives require personal effort and a personal connection between the victim and the activist, creating a ripple effect which causes change on a bigger level.

The unheard story of a child groom

From personal experience, I know that it is possible for a student to make a change in lives of unprivileged children and to break the cycle of traditions that have become illegal with time. Being owner and founder of a project working with street children in India, I spent a lot of time in the rural area of Rajasthan, where 70% of the minors is married. 

I met many children who were married off between the age of 0 and 15. I met girls who were married before they were able to talk and walk, meaning their whole lives were laid out for them, depriving them of the chance to create a life of their own. I talked to boys who have been married since the age of 13 and have never seen their wife’s face.

The parents of a boy I met were about to arrange a marriage for their 15 year old son. He begged me to talk to his parents, because they would not listen to him. I talked to them, trying to understand but also change their way of thinking. The parents were not aware of the illegality and had married off their other five children as well. I told them that their son’s life had so much more potential if he would not be married before the legal age of 21. If he were to marry, he would not have the chance to finish school, depriving him of a good job. It would mean he would have to care for his wife, prior to being capable to care for himself.

I had unexpected supporters of my cause. The boy’s brothers were married off at the age of 13. After crying for days, they were both forced to quit school and marry girls they had never met before. One of the brothers told me his dream was to go to college. He told me how his dream collapsed and how he felt like his life was finished the moment he got married. He is now a 23 year old father of four, without a sufficient income to provide for his family. He wanted his younger brother to have a different life.

And so we succeeded. We eventually persuaded the boy’s parents to not force him into a marriage at the age of 15. Remarkable was the proud look in the parents’ eyes while they were looking at their son. They were willing to let their son choose his own life, giving him the chance to finish school. They did not have this conversation when his older brothers got married, not knowing how they really felt about it. Finding out their unheard side of the story affected them, hopefully creating a ripple effect for future generations.

Help child brides raise their voice

The community I infiltrated shared their life stories with me. Very few were positive. The problem is that most of the people in rural communities like this are not aware of the fact that marrying before the age of 18 is illegal and in a violation with human rights. They simply do not know better and are not discussing personal subjects like this within their social environment. As a result,  this pattern of child marriages keeps on going for generations, and  nobody is intervening. Within many societies it is considered normal, thus it would take someone from the outside to implement a different mindset.

As inhabitants of what we call the Western world, we are blessed with freedom and so many options, that it would be a shame not to use these to make a change in this world. Most of us travel to Asian countries these days and have probably witnessed violations of children’s rights in some kind of way. As I experienced, children in the community concerned do not have the courage yet to speak up. You can support them, by listening to their story and help them to raise their voice against injustice. Converse with locals, try to understand their discourse and conduct research about cultural differences, like child marriage. What value do they add to marrying out their children? Why do they neglect the fact that child marriage deprives a child of many options in life? After hearing their side of the story, respectfully implement your mindset. Strive to change their ideas and values, making them aware of the fact that child marriage is an illegal activity. Spread the child’s unheard story. It can have a life-changing impact

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