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THE WORTH OF A GIR

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What does a child bride bring to a marriage — a dowry, social status, domestic labor, business connections? What is her value to two families, the one she leaves and the one she joins? And what is the cost to the girl?

By VOA News 

Somaya was 13 years old and finishing seventh grade in Herat, Afghanistan, when her father sold her for 250,000 afghani ($3,300) to marry his relative’s son.

She moved into her new husband’s family home, she says, and her father then spent much of the money on her bedding, clothes and jewelry. When Somaya asked if she could go back to classes, she says both her mother-in-law and husband beat her.

“I kept telling them that I wanted to go to school,” Somaya says. Like many Afghans, she uses only one name. “But my in-laws told me, ‘If you go to school, who will do the house chores? We bought you.’”

About 650 million children and women alive today were married before age 18, roughly 17% of the global female population, according to UNICEF. In a yearlong project, Voice of America set out to meet child brides from Albania to Pakistan to Tanzania, putting faces and voices to a practice that the United Nations is trying to eliminate by 2030.

Ending child marriage is pivotal to improving global health, eliminating poverty and expanding human rights, UNICEF says. Married teen girls are often physically abused, and their lives of chores and childbearing perpetuate centuries-old cycles of gender inequality in their communities.

The leading causes of death for girls ages 15 to 19 are complications from pregnancy and giving birth, according to the World Health Organization. Babies born to girls younger than 18 also have higher risks of death and stunting.

Countries with highest rate of child marriage

According to a 2017 UNICEF report, the countries with the highest rates of child marriage before age 18 are:

CountryMarried
by 18
Niger76%
Central African Republic68%
Chad67%
Bangladesh59%
Mali52%
South Sudan52%
Burkina Faso52%
Guinea51%
Mozambique48%
Somalia45%

MALAWI

9%42%
Married by 15Married by 18

Early marriage doesn’t happen in only one region or in one religion. The U.S. state of Missouri raised its minimum legal age for marriage to 16 just last year. Couples from neighboring states have long crossed into the Midwestern state to wed, often because the girl was pregnant and the baby’s father feared prison for statutory rape.

In northern Nigeria, where more than 65% of girls are married before they turn 18, according to Girls Not Brides, a London-based partnership of more than 1,000 organizations working to end child marriage, the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram reportedly rewards its young militants with wives.

On Lombok, a lush island east of Bali in Indonesia, a girl who’s still single at 16 shames her whole family.

“People tend to think that this is an issue that affects a couple of hundred girls in small villages around the world,” says Lakshmi Sundaram, who was executive director of Girls Not Brides from 2012 until earlier this year. “It’s happening everywhere. It may look a bit different in different places, but it is a universal issue.”

The term child marriage refers to formal marriages and informal unions in which a girl or boy lives with a partner as if married before the age of 18. An informal union is one in which a couple live together over time without a formal civil or religious ceremony.

Despite the crushing consequences, more than 12 million girls a year still marry by age 18, according to UNICEF. They are often forced into a union because they may be valued by parents and others in ways that impede the basic right to grow up, get an education and make their own choices.

The practice overwhelmingly affects girls from poor and rural areas, where child marriage is an ingrained cultural practice that some people see as protecting women with limited options.

Global worth

VOA journalists around the globe focused on the worth of a girl, looking to reveal how a young bride is valued by two families — the one she leaves behind, and the one she joins — and the cost to the girl herself of marriage before adulthood.

To solicit global views during the reporting process, VOA news teams and affiliates reporting in 12 languages posted short videos on Facebook and Instagram of girls and women talking about their experience as brides and young mothers.

These clips received millions of views and thousands of comments, from tearful emojis to arguments for and against child marriage that are steeped in faith, money, culture, power, sexism and love.

Somaya, now 15, sits on cream-colored pillows as she calmly tells her story. Her voice breaks only when she talks about school.

“I loved to go to school every day,” she says, her green eyes tearing up. “I lost my chance to get an education.”

Among the girls and women whom VOA interviewed, this theme dominated: They regret being pulled out of school and vow to help other girls, especially their daughters, avoid the same life.

In Kayapinar, Turkey, Sultan Mustafa Tumerdem, now 58, says she has had a happy life with a husband and two adult sons. Her parents forced her to marry a boy she didn’t know when she was a child, she says, and she wouldn’t wish the same for others.

“Don’t get married early, because people feel crushed when they get married early,” she says. “I didn’t go to school, and so I was crushed.”

In Honduras, Olga Emelina Vasquez Pena moved in with her boyfriend when she was 17 and pregnant. They share a home in El Granadillo and have a 15-month-old daughter. Olga says that in her village near rural La Paz, where lucrative jobs are hard to find, “few people get married.

“When you have a partner, he can help you get things,” she says.

Olga’s mother, who sits with her in the video, left school after the second grade, she says, and regrets her daughter not getting more education. Still, Olga, now 19, says she didn’t consult with anyone before her union.

“Here, kids get together with partners around 17 to 21 years old,” she says. “When you are part of a couple, you have more responsibility. You have to do things, even if you don’t want to.”

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