Sometimes girls get married because they think they are getting a better life than what they are leaving behind. Sadly, this is not always true.
It is a sobering moment when you understand how a society treats its women. In a broader sense, what defines a society is how it treats its poorest, weakest and most vulnerable members—especially women and girls. After three months of being kidnapped and held captive by the Boko Haram militia, more than 60 out of the 200 Nigerian school girls escaped. These brave girls’ escape reminds me that millions of girls go missing every year—forced into or sold for marriage—and most of them would like to escape, too. This incident has also brought to light the similarities of young girls at risk. It is not just Nigerian girls who face the threat of early and forced marriage. My work with girls at risk in South Asia has made it clear to me just how vulnerable girls can feel in other parts of the world as well as the high prevalence of early marriage in South Asian countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.
I was on a fact finding mission in Mewat, a district in the State of Haryana in India, to collect first-hand information about young girls who were forcibly married by their parents in the Middle East. Girls are not just at risk from their parents looking to get rid of a burden; there are high rates of young girls from different regions of India who agree to go abroad to get married in search of better options than what they see at home. With no opportunity to finish school, and facing being a burden in their parents’ home, sometimes a marriage—any marriage—seems like the best way out. There may be promises of money, having her own home, or being an adult in their society.
Paro, in Rajasthan, was one of those girls. She was very hesitant to tell her story, but opened up as she saw other girls participating in community workshops I organized on a monthly basis. Paro, who is now 22 years old, was sold as a bride at the age of 15 to a 50 year old man. A man who regularly came to her home village, convinced her to run away to the big city because he promised her a job and a better life in a big city. I asked Paro why she agreed to flee from her home state to Rajasthan. She replied, “I needed a better life and money. I had no other option. After coming here I got caught in the cycles of exploitation, I worked as cheap labor.” She told me that there were many other girls like her who were deceived on promises of getting a better life, and were taken to places far away from their homes and loved ones.
Caught between the circles of extreme poverty, low literacy rates, early drop-out from schools, hunger, poor family planning, high mortality rates, thousands of such girls go missing and fall prey to getting married early. Unfortunately, the current laws do not do justice to seeking protection, rehabilitation or re-integration of these girls and women.
Despite the laws against early and forced child marriage, the rates remain extremely high. Human rights activists and legal experts believe that the only way to end underage marriages is to make school education compulsory. In my mind, education is not the only solution to protect girls or delay their marriage. Until families realize that the root cause of the problem lies within their homes and cultures, this will continue to haunt the lives of young girls, who will continuously be taken for granted.
Some crucial next steps are educating and raising awareness levels of their families, communities and the key actors at large about the repercussions of early marriages. We also need to create livelihood opportunities for girls and train them on life-skills. Economically empowering young girls so that they can create better lives for themselves gives girls options other than child marriage or running away to the big city based on false promises of a better life. This would bring more meaningful changes in the life course of a young girl.
About the Author: Karuna Dayal is an Atlas Corps Fellow from India serving at CARE USA. As a Policy Fellow she is engaged in supporting the Tipping Point team in research and analysis around implementation of donor and government policies addressing child marriage in Bangladesh and Nepal, strategic planning and project implementation including activities aimed at capacity building, communications and knowledge management, and contributing to the development of an advocacy strategy to influence key stakeholders at global and national levels.