The law may be tightened to forbid child marriages, but education is also needed to stamp out a practice that inflicts years of untold suffering on women and girls.
Last month British minister Pauline Latham proposed a bill to ban marriage before the age of 18 in England and Wales, with the ultimate aim of meeting the UN’s target of eradicating all child marriages by the year 2030. At the moment 16-year-olds can marry with their parents’ permission, which is out of step with the UN’s recommendations.
It’s a practice that affects girls far more than boys – Unicef say 76% of all women in Niger were married before they turned 18, and a third were not yet 15. Another jarring figure: it is estimated that around the world more than 40,000 girls under 18 are forced to marry every single day, most commonly throughout Africa and parts of south east Asia.
In these nations it is deeply ingrained, due to the poverty that makes families give up their daughters for marriage in exchange for money, and religious or cultural beliefs such as ensuring girls are virgins before they wed. Here a change to legislation is essential, but it’s also unlikely it will be sufficient to transform centuries of tradition.
Even if the UN has called it a human rights violation and it clearly engenders misery, prolonging poverty as it denies girls’ education and the opportunity to work, as well as hurling them into relationships with a high propensity to domestic violence and emotional trauma, along with poor physical health.
For Iranian Ahoo Khanom*, being forced to marry a much older man at the age of 14 marked the start of a cycle of abuse that at times made her want to end her life.
Ahoo was married after discovering her father’s secret affair with his sister-in-law. He was so angry, she says, that he told her she either got married or he’d kill her.
Her husband turned out to be a violent man who frequently beat her with a wooden stick. “Anytime he was angry he’d beat the soles of my feet. He said “I won’t beat your body because you’ll show your mother and I don’t want to leave marks”” she recalls. His beatings continued while she was pregnant, and her first child died a week after being born.
“I tried many times to divorce him through the courts” she recounts. “I had so many marks from him beating me, but he didn’t want to, and in Iran men have more power than women.” When she finally succeeded in divorcing him there were conditions: she had to leave their home which had been given to her by her mother, she couldn’t take any belongings, wouldn’t get any money as is custom for women to receive in Iran when they divorce, and she had to abandon the baby they’d had together.
An Afghan family helped her get the divorce, and after falling in love and marrying their son another unhappy marriage followed which saw her enslaved by the family after moving with them to Afghanistan. When the next baby she had died after six months, her husband turned on her, locking her in the house and beating her.
Despite being malnourished and pregnant she managed to escape back home to Iran, but couldn’t afford to care for her new baby boy after giving birth. Her now ex-husband refused to take him, and she was unable to give him up for adoption because she didn’t have legal divorce papers. So she took a desperate route. “One night I wrote a letter and left the baby in the mosque. When I came back I was going mad” she says.
She decided to go to Japan to stay with her mother’s step brother, but rather than offer her safety he raped her. Her third husband forced her to miscarry their child before they married because as several of her children had died shortly after birth, “he didn’t trust any babies from me because they all die.” After they married, “he ran away from Iran. I’d given him all my money. One day I found out he’d married an American to get a green card.”
The tragedies didn’t end there. There was a spell in an Iranian prison where she was subjected to extreme violence, after this she gained asylum in the UK, but entered into another abusive relationship with a man who pushed her down the stairs while she was pregnant, sending her to hospital. To make ends meet and send money back to her family, she got involved in criminal activities which landed her in London’s Holloway Prison.
Now she is on probation, living in London where she has been running a car wash business. She has survived unimaginable hurt, and unsurprisingly when asked how she feels about her life she breaks down. “I’m so tired. I lost so many things. I lost my children, my life. If my father didn’t force me to marry…” she trails off.
Does she think things would have been different had a law banning child marriage been enforced? “It’s not enough, they need to educate the families” she says. “Girls at that age don’t have power, anything the family says to them they follow, it’s their rules.”
It might seem an unsurmountable task, but education is limitless in its forms and its outcomes. In India a groundbreaking programme included a soap opera that promoted gender equality and access to healthcare. Among its many achievements, more people felt girls should complete their education and be 18 before marrying after watching the show. “I, A Woman, Can Achieve Anything” was watched by 58 million people.
For her part, Ahoo Khanom is in the process of writing a book about her life so that her story will be one of resilience and hope, because she wants “to be a voice for the voiceless, for people to know how women are treated.”
*Name has been changed to protect her identity.