Robert Gorter, et al.
Robert Gorter, MD, PhD, is emeritus professor of the University of California San Francisco Medical School (UCSF)
It is happening as we speak: the UN estimates that every year, at least 8 million girls under age 12 are being forced into marriage and usually with grooms between 40 and 65 years of age. In the European Union, the phenomenon of child brides is becoming a huge problem as these children arrive among the constant flow of refugees and with little or no documentation. Child brides as young as 6 years of age have been discovered.
Photograph by Stephanie Sinclair
Because the wedding was illegal and a secret, except to the invited guests, and because marriage rites in Rajasthan are often conducted late at night, it was well into the afternoon before the three girl brides in this dry farm settlement in the north of India began to prepare themselves for their sacred vows. They squatted side by side on the dirt, a crowd of village women holding sari cloth around them as a makeshift curtain, and poured soapy water from a metal pan over their heads. Two of the brides, the sisters Radha and Gora, were 15 and 13, old enough to understand what was happening. The third, their niece Rajani, was 5. She wore a pink T-shirt with a butterfly design on the shoulder. A grown-up helped her pull it off to bathe.
Long after midnight, five-year-old Rajani is roused from sleep and carried by her uncle to her wedding. Child marriage is illegal in India, so ceremonies are often held in the wee hours of morning. It becomes a secret the whole village keeps, explained one farmer.
The grooms were en route from their own village, many miles away. No one could afford an elephant or the lavishly saddled horses that would have been ceremonially correct for the grooms’ entrance to the wedding, so they were coming by car and were expected to arrive high-spirited and drunk. The only local person to have met the grooms was the father of the two oldest girls, a slender gray-haired farmer with a straight back and a drooping mustache. This farmer, whom I will call Mr. M, was both proud and wary as he surveyed guests funneling up the rocky path toward the bright silks draped over poles for shade; he knew that if a non-bribable police officer found out what was under way, the wedding might be interrupted mid-ceremony, bringing criminal arrests and lingering shame to his family.
Rajani was Mr. M’s granddaughter, the child of his oldest married daughter. She had round brown eyes, a broad little nose, and skin the color of milk chocolate. She lived with her grandparents. Her mother had moved to her husband’s village, as rural married Indian women are expected to do, and this husband, Rajani’s father, was rumored to be a drinker and a bad farmer. The villagers said it was the grandfather, Mr. M, who loved Rajani most; you could see this in the way he had arranged a groom for her from the respectable family into which her aunt Radha was also being married. This way she would not be lonely after her gauna, the Indian ceremony that marks the physical transfer of a bride from her childhood family to her husband’s. When Indian girls are married as children, the gauna is supposed to take place after puberty, so Rajani would live for a few more years with her grandparents—and Mr. M had done well to protect this child in the meantime, the villagers said, by marking her publicly as married.
These were things we learned in a Rajasthan village during Akha Teej, a festival that takes place during the hottest months of spring, just before the monsoon rains, and that is considered an auspicious time for weddings. We stared miserably at the 5-year-old Rajani as it became clear that the small girl in the T-shirt, padding around barefoot and holding the pink plastic sunglasses someone had given her, was also to be one of the midnight ceremony’s brides. The man who had led us to the village, a cousin to Mr. M, had advised us only that a wedding was planned for two teenage sisters. That in itself was risky to disclose, as in India girls may not legally marry before age 18. But the techniques used to encourage the overlooking of illegal weddings—neighborly conspiracy, appeals to family honor—are more easily managed when the betrothed girls have at least reached puberty. The littlest daughters tend to be added on discreetly, their names kept off the invitations, the unannounced second or third bride at their own weddings.
Rajani fell asleep before the ceremonials began. An uncle lifted her gently from her cot, hoisted her over one of his shoulders, and carried her in the moonlight toward the Hindu priest and the smoke of the sacred fire and the guests on plastic chairs and her future husband, a ten-year-old boy with a golden turban on his head.
The outsider’s impulse toward child bride rescue scenarios can be overwhelming: Snatch up the girl, punch out the nearby adults, and run. Just make it stop. Above my desk, I have taped to the wall a photograph of Rajani on her wedding night. In the picture it’s dusk, six hours before the marriage ceremony, and her face is turned toward the camera, her eyes wide and untroubled, with the beginnings of a smile. I remember my own rescue fantasies roiling that night—not solely for Rajani, whom I could have slung over my own shoulder and carried away alone, but also for the 13- and the 15-year-old sisters who were being transferred like requisitioned goods, one family to another, because a group of adult males had arranged their futures for them.
People, who work full-time trying to prevent child marriage, and to improve women’s lives in societies of rigid tradition, are the first to smack down the impertinent notion that anything about this endeavor is simple. Forced early marriage thrives to this day in many regions of the world—arranged by parents for their own children, often in defiance of national laws, and understood by whole communities as an appropriate way for a young woman to grow up when the alternatives, especially if they carry a risk of her losing her virginity to someone besides her husband, are unacceptable.
Child marriage spans continents, language, religion, caste. In India, the girls will typically be attached to boys four or five years older; in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other countries with high early marriage rates, the husbands may be young men or middle-aged widowers or abductors who rape first and claim their victims as wives afterward, as is the practice in certain regions of Ethiopia. Some of these marriages are business transactions, barely adorned with additional rationale: a debt cleared in exchange for an 8-year-old bride; a family feud resolved by the delivery of a virginal 12-year-old cousin. Those, when they happen to surface publicly, make for clear and outrage-inducing news fodder from great distances away. The 2008, drama of Nujood Ali, the 10-year-old Yemeni girl who found her way alone to an urban courthouse to request a divorce from the man in his 30s her father had forced her to marry, generated worldwide headlines and more recently a book, translated into 30 languages: I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced.
But inside a few of the communities in which parent-arranged early marriage is common practice—amid the women of Rajani’s settlement, for example, listening to the mournful sound of their songs to the bathing brides—it feels infinitely more difficult to isolate the nature of the wrongs being perpetrated against these girls. Their educations will be truncated not only by marriage but also by rural school systems, which may offer a nearby school only through fifth grade; beyond that, there’s the daily bus ride to town, amid crowded-in, predatory men. The middle school at the end of the bus ride may have no private indoor bathroom in which an adolescent girl can attend to her sanitary needs. And schooling costs money, which a practical family is surely guarding most carefully for sons, with their more readily measurable worth. In India, where by long-standing practice most new wives leave home to move in with their husbands’ families, the Hindi term paraya dhan refers to daughters still living with their own parents. Its literal meaning is “someone else’s wealth.”
After Flames, a veil of gauze protects a patient named Zahara from flies in a burn ward in Herat, Afghanistan. Afghan women who set themselves on fire may do so to escape abuse at home, believing they will die instantly. Yet many linger on with terrible injuries. Photographer Stephanie Sinclair first covered the issue of self-immolation by Afghan women in 2003. That led to an eight-year project on child marriage. She says, “I needed to start researching what would be so bad in these women’s lives that they would take this drastic measure.”
In Afghanistan and Pakistan, more than half the women in burn wards have been forced to marry very young: at age 9, 10, or 11. Many of them suffer long periods of mental trauma during their early marriages. Then they usually hear about other women who had set themselves on fire, and they see it as a way out, or even as a cry for help. Because they haven’t been educated, they don’t realize the consequences of living through the burns, of living with disfigurement. Girls are often pulled out of school as soon as they’re engaged. Keeping them in school works against both child marriage and self-immolation.
After celebrating with female relatives at a wedding party, Yemeni brides Sidaba and Galiyaah are veiled and escorted to a new life with their husbands. “Some rural girls see marriage as saving themselves from the abusive control of their families,” says an activist in the capital, Sanaa. (Photography by Stephanie Sinclair)
This group of young brides in a village in western Yemen were quiet and shy—until talk turned to education. Most of the girls, who were married between the ages of 12 and 16, had never attended school, but all say they still hope for an education.
Asia, a 14-year-old mother of two, washes her new baby girl at home in Hajjah while her 2-year-old daughter plays. Asia is still bleeding and ill from childbirth; yet has no education or access to information on how to care for herself
Nujood Ali was ten when she fled her abusive, much older husband and took a taxi to the courthouse in Sanaa, Yemen. The girl’s courageous act—and the landmark legal battle that ensued—turned her into an international heroine for women’s rights. Now divorced, she is back home with her family and attending school again.
Kandahar policewoman Malalai Kakar arrests a man who repeatedly stabbed his wife, 15, for disobeying him. “Nothing,” Kakar said, when asked what would happen to the husband. “Men are kings here.” Kakar was later killed by the Taliban (but not for the abuse of his wife)
Rajani and her boy groom barely look at each other as they are married in front of the sacred fire. By tradition, the young bride is expected to live at her home until early puberty, when she starts menstruating and a second ceremony transfers her to her husband.
Although early marriage is the norm in her small Nepali village, 14-year-old Surita wails in protest as she leaves her family’s home (and fights and kicks with all her force till she arrives at her groom’s house), shielded by a traditional wedding umbrella and carried in a cart to her new husband’s village.
When Sunil’s parents arranged for her marriage at age 11, she threatened to report them to police in Rajasthan, India. They relented, and Sunil, now 13, stayed in school. “Studying will give her an edge against others,” her mother now says.
A Pokot girl in Kenya is stopped from running away after hearing she is to be married off. Her father had secretly arranged a dowry with her future husband. (Siegfried Modola/Reuters)
A young Muslim bride during a mass wedding ceremony in Ahmedabad. Marrying girls off at an early age (as early as 6 years) is common practice in rural areas of India. Photograph: Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images