In a grassy field splattered with patches of tiny lilacs in Ethiopia, I sat next to a twelve year old girl. She watched me out of the corner of her eye, just as I watched her out of the corner of mine. She was making a bracelet out of lilacs and, when she finished weaving the stems together, she slipped it over my wrist. Her face lit up with a smile when I told her that the bracelet, like her, was beautiful.
For a moment, I saw the child behind the bride.
The global community is waking up to child marriage. UNICEF calls the practice “perhaps the most prevalent form of sexual abuse and exploitation of girls.” Governments and international organizations are increasing efforts to delay marriage age. Girls Not Brides, a global partnership of over 300 organizations committed to ending child marriage, is creating unprecedented advocacy.
Despite these increasing efforts, the WHO estimates that 39,000 girl children marry every day. Some of these are girls are as young as seven years old. Girls are not prepared for this abrupt transition to an adult world. Given her age and lack of experience, a child wife does not have the critical thinking skills needed to safely navigate her environment. Answering to an adult husband, she lacks autonomy and decision-making power. Taken from her familial home and possibly her natal village, she loses access to social resources. She becomes dependent upon her husband who is raising his own wife. When a bride price is involved, the husband often feels entitled, as if his wife is a possession. “Like my goat,” one husband explained at a home visit, “I have a wife.” I heard this man’s wife moving about, but despite my requests I never met her. She was invisible in her home.
Many of these girls will become pregnant during childhood. Child brides lack reproductive health knowledge and tend to have no control over sexual intercourse. A Population Council survey found that 81% of surveyed child brides in Amhara, Ethiopia described their first sexual encounter with their husbands as forced. Pregnancy and childbirth remain the leading cause of death of very young adolescents in low income countries. The UNFPA estimates that today 200 girls will die in childbirth.
The global community focuses on delaying marriage age. Prevention is the solution, but yet it overlooks the 39,000 girls who just woke up to their first day as a wife.
Married girls are caught in a programmatic blind spot. Since they tend to be out of school, they are automatically excluded from programs for in-school girls. Programs targeting out-of-school girls often overlook married children, as they are not living in households that claim dependent daughters. These girls also fall far from the radar of programs for married women. Even if invited, a program designed for adults does not meet the needs of children.
The development community is starting to respond to the vast needs of married girls. Overwhelmed by how disempowered these girls are, we scramble to fit a lifetime of knowledge into every project. In this frenzy, it is easy to overlook the most obvious and urgent need: married girls need to be children.
In 2007, Save the Children piloted a project to aid the social reintegration of former girl child soldiers in Uganda. Abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army and raped by their captors, these girls had become child mothers. Whereas most girls struggled, a few thrived. Save the Children used the Positive Deviance approach to discover what allowed these girls to prosper despite all odds. They learned that the thriving girls participated in sports, music and exercise.
To say it another way: Save the Children found that thriving girls played. The organization then created outlets for the other girls to play and watched as they became more confident, secure and happier.
The results of this program speak volumes for child brides. Children learn through play, acquiring life skills that cannot be taught. They come to terms with their reality, process trauma and build resilience. For a child bride, a girl who has been taken from her home, raped and robbed of her dignity, play can be a lifeline. Play can provide an escape from an unbearable situation.
I worry less about the twelve year old in the lilac field than many others. Her situation is not likely to change, but as long as she can steal moments for herself, she has power. As we develop programs for married girls, we must couple practical skills and knowledge with the emotional coping skills that the girls will need long after the program ends. As we struggle to help married girls carve out a life dignity, let’s remember that the most dignified act of childhood is play.