Teens fight for child brides

July 2011
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Let’s ask the mother: ‘How old were you when you got married?’ The chances are she’ll say ‘I was 21.’ So why are you sending your daughter away at 12?”
The disturbing prospect of 100 million child brides in the next decade has galvanized teenage girls in the United States, who are demanding action on behalf of their young counterparts around the world.

The United Nations Foundation’s Girl Up campaign says it has mobilized 150,000 American teens. They say they want the practice of child marriage stopped and have delivered a petition to the White House signed by girls across the U.S.

“It’s a human rights issue,” says Erica Lamberson, who’s one of the teen leaders. “I think it’s a problem when anyone is forced to do anything that they don’t want to do or are not clear about or are not prepared for. Child marriage is huge because once you get married at such a young age, you know, your life’s not over but your life has drastically changed its path.”

Child bride expert Jennifer Redner says the practice of marrying girls off early has profound negative impacts. “When a young girl may come home from school one day and find her bags packed or may find out the next day there may be some sort of ceremony where she’ll be wed – sometimes as young as eight, nine, ten – the consequences can be absolutely detrimental.”

Redner, who serves as U.S. Policy Consultant to the International Women's Health Coalition, says that child brides are also more likely to marry much older men. “Therefore the power dynamics will be even more difficult in terms of her being able to negotiate safe sex, be able to stay in school, to be able to not get pregnant as early as 10, 11 years old, so the consequences are quite, quite strong.”

Elizabeth Gore, Vice President of Global Partnerships at the UN Foundation, says that for the victims of this practice, the stakes are high: “One girl who I met in Ethiopia who is scared and has run away is sitting in a bus depot and is either going to be brokered into sex work or not educated or into domestic labor and she never gets a shot.”

But old habits die hard. Sheila Siwela, Zambia’s Ambassador to the U.S., says education is key in changing deep-seated cultural traditions. “Lets go back to the girl child themselves, let’s go back to the parents and the mothers. Lets ask the mother ‘how old were you when you got married?’ the chances are she’ll say ‘I was 21.’ So why are you sending your daughter away at 12?”

But Siwela believes the practice can be eliminated. “I think it’s nearer than we think. As long as we step up the efforts of encouraging the girl childs to go back to school and finish school, and again as long as we go back to the communities themselves to make their own decisions.”

And at the end of the day, if the Girl Up campaign is to succeed, it must be the adults in the communities who change their thinking, and let the children be children.
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