Re­li­gious lead­ers, rights groups seek to curb child mar­riages

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - NATION | WORLD - By Car­ley Petesch

DAKAR, Sene­gal — Sit­ting on the floor and dressed in black, the 15-year-old held her baby as pan­icked tears welled in her eyes. Her hus­band, two decades her se­nior, could kill her if he found out she was telling her story, she said.

She was mar­ried at age 13 in the West African na­tion of Guinea be­cause her par­ents feared she could harm her mar­riage prospects by hav­ing pre­mar­i­tal sex. At the time, she said, she had not even de­vel­oped breasts.

“I was given to a man that I didn’t choose be­fore my body was even ready to have sex,” she said, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity for fear of reprisals. “I couldn’t even move for a week after­ward be­cause I was swollen and bleed­ing.” ‘A com­plex is­sue’

Child mar­riage re­mains deeply en­trenched in West and Cen­tral Africa, home to six of the 10 coun­tries with the high­est rates in the world. Rights groups and po­lit­i­cal and re­li­gious lead­ers from across the re­gion gath­ered in Sene­gal this past week to seek ways to curb the prac­tice.

Out­spo­ken sur­vivors of child mar­riage urged them on.

More than half of girls in Guinea are mar­ried be­fore age 18. While the coun­try re­cently banned mar­riage for those un­der that age, ob­servers say the prac­tice re­mains wide­spread. Some girls en­ter ar­ranged mar­riages dur­ing times of in­se­cu­rity or when fam­i­lies are un­der eco­nomic strain.

“This is a com­plex is­sue driven by poverty, cul­tural norms and fam­i­lies try­ing to do the best for their chil­dren,” said Save The Chil­dren In­ter­na­tional CEO Helle Thorn­ing Sch­midt. “But un­til we break the cy­cle where the only way a girl can give her fam­ily honor is to marry and have chil­dren, then we will not change this.”

Child mar­riage af­fects nearly 15 mil­lion girls around the globe. The rate is as high as 76 per­cent in Niger; in Chad and Cen­tral African Re­pub­lic it is 68 per­cent. Mali and Burk­ina Faso have rates above 50 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to data from Save the Chil­dren and Girls Not Brides. Ed­u­ca­tion is key

Ex­perts say ed­u­ca­tion for girls is key to pro­vid­ing them with op­por­tu­ni­ties be­yond mar­riage, and to im­prov­ing re­gional pros­per­ity.

Musu Bakoto Sawo, now a 27-year-old lawyer and hu­man rights ad­vo­cate from Gam­bia, was mar­ried at age 14. She was 21 when she be­came a widow and in­her­ited noth­ing.

She said ed­u­ca­tion is the only rea­son she has thrived, call­ing it “the only way I could go against the sys­tem.”

Some young women may em­brace early mar­riages, see­ing them as pro­tec­tion from in­se­cu­rity in con­flict-rid­den ar­eas, said Zuwaira Bello of the ad­vo­cacy group Girl Child Con­cerns. The group op­er­ates in north­ern Nige­ria, where the Boko Haram ex­trem­ist in­sur­gency is known for kid­nap­ping young women and forc­ing them into mar­riages.

In­volv­ing for­mer child brides in com­mu­nity ac­tivism will help dis­cour­age child mar­riages that seek pro­tec­tion from un­rest, Bello said.

Some young women who es­caped forced mar­riages now spread the word against the prac­tice.

Leila, who asked that her last name not be used to pro­tect her fam­ily, said her un­cle in Niger forced her to marry a man at age 14 be­cause he owed a debt he couldn’t re­pay. A year later, she was preg­nant.

She said her hus­band beat her for re­fus­ing sex. After a sec­ond preg­nancy, she was able to es­cape, get a di­vorce and re­turn to her stud­ies.

Through tears, she urged other young brides to re­main hope­ful.

“I would say to them to be pa­tient and re­main coura­geous,” she said.

Associated Press file

Zali Idy is shown in 2012 at age 12 in her bed­room in the re­mote vil­lage of Hawkan­taki, Niger. Zali was mar­ried in 2011. Child mar­riage af­fects nearly 15 mil­lion girls around the world, and West and Cen­tral Africa have six of the 10 coun­tries with the high­est rate.

Car­ley Petesch / Associated Press

In Niger, Leila, who asked that her last name not be used, said that at age 14 she was forced to marry a man who beat her.

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