Wedding hell: child brides

Posted on June 22, 2009.

Too young to carry the burden of marriage. Photo: M. Sayagues

In Bissau - too young to carry the burden of marriage. Photo: M.Sayagues

She was a brave little girl, who believed in her right to choose how to live her life. Aged 12, as a minor she remained nameless in the news.

She lived in Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands, the green, misty mountains along the Mozambican border. On weekends, people dressed in flowing white robes, the men bearded, holding carved wooden canes, gather under the masasa trees. They belong to the Johanne Marange apostolic sect. Peaceful people – with a nasty habit of marrying young girls.

The girl was given as second wife to her older sister’s husband, a pastor in his fifties. She escaped to her uncle’s home but he brought her back. She got a beating, and escaped again. She sought the school teacher and  he brought her back. She got another hiding, and escaped again. She went to the police, and they brought her back. Then she hanged herself.

That was in 2001. Her death was just a news blip among violent farm invasions.

Although against the law, child weddings continue in Zimbabwe, and likely on the rise due to poverty, says a new study by Women and Law in Southern Africa. Adults and social institutions still fail to protect girls.

Parents: criminals or ignorant?

Years later I did a story on child marriage in Gabu, in eastern Guinea Bissau. Interviewing parents and chiefs, I heard that misery, coupled with fear of AIDS and out of wedlock pregnancy, drove the practice.

The parents I talked to were ignorant and poor, not evil. They did not know any better. They lived in a failed state that fails to deliver basic services. Just to finish primary school in rural Bissau is a victory.

In April, a Mauritanian mother living near Cadiz, Spain, was sentenced to 17 years in prison for marrying her daughter, then aged 13, to a distant cousin, and forcing her to have sex with him.

The wedding took place in Mauritania in 2005 and the sex in Spain in 2007 when the husband visited his teen wife, who continued living with her parents. He got a 13-year jail sentence, and her illiterate father, 18 months.

The girl’s two younger siblings returned to Mauritania, where protests have unfurled.

Child marriage should be eradicated like smallpox – but is this harsh, family-splitting prison sentence the best solution?

A short stay in prison and extended community service at a Muslim NGO that promotes gender equality would emphasize education over repression.

From another perspective: what mechanisms does Spain have to teach its family laws to its immigrant cheap labour? Driving a car without a licence is not allowed. Work permits could be tied to a quick test: knowing Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, prison sentences for genital cutting and child marriage, and local laws that protect the rights of little girls.