More than 700 million people around the world were married as children. If we really want to end child marriage, says Bisha Ali, we need to change more than the law.
By her 19th birthday, my grandmother was a widow and a mother of three. The youngest of them, my mother, was born a month after her husband died, alone in the twisted carcass of an old RAF plane, the flimsy sheet metal curled and torn around him. Years later, she would sit with her children on a rooftop at Heathrow Terminal 2 and point out the different types of planes overhead, feeding my mum and her siblings tuna sandwiches and cold chai from a leaky thermos.
It wasn’t until I was 14, that the pieces of her life started to come together for me. I did the maths and understood that, at the same age, she had recently had her first child. While I sat GCSEs and A Levels, and started university, she raised an abandoned leopard cub and three babies, while caring for her ailing mother. All the while, the world around her insisted her daughter’s fate be written by men. And she understood that, without a drastic change, the same hands would write the stories of her grandchildren, and their children, too.
There is little need to expound on the incredibly harmful impacts of child marriage. From the devastating consequences for a girl’s health, to the end of education for a young child, the negative effects compound and trap girls into a seemingly unbreakable cycle of poverty.
The statistics are staggering. More than 700 million people alive today were married as children. 14 million girls are married every single year before they reach the age of 18. In some developing countries, one in nine girls are married by their fifteenth birthdays – in many cases, they are as young as eight or nine.
While awareness has grown over the past decade, actual change in the statistics has been minimal. If there is no significant cultural shift away from child marriage in this generation,142 million girls will be married before they reach their 18th birthdays within the next decade. (UNFPA)
The numbers are overwhelming and the little progress made can be disheartening. To find solutions, complex causes have been observed and debated in academic offices, NGO meetings and government headquarters. But generalising can be a hindrance. The reasons for child marriage differ from one community to the next, from security (financial and physical) to honour cultures and traditions.
My grandmother moved as far away as she could within the bounds of the culture she was raised in. When her first husband died, she still belonged to her in-laws. Her children carried their blood, their name and their puffy cheeks. A few years later, her marriage was arranged to her late husband’s younger brother. A man with the same smile but very different sensibilities. I like to believe he offered her financial security and some greater agency as a married woman – and that she knew what compromises she was making in order to gain those small freedoms.
As a child, growing up between apparently dichotomous Western and Eastern cultures, I was relatively unaware of the two worlds colliding in our suburban bungalow. I learned a few years after my 11th birthday that my aunt had requested my hand in marriage for her then 25-year-old son. We would make a good match, it would tie our families together, secure our bloodline and make sound financial sense. I have my mother to thank, for inheriting my grandmother’s pioneering spirit and finding the voice to say “No. Not my daughter.”
My parents’ refusal was grounded in factors that many in a similar situation simply do not have the luxury of. Financial security, physical security, legal support and the ability, and desire, to stand up to years of tradition which no longer fit with the new world they had seen. I am one of the lucky ones.
Not all parents have the same choices. Um Ali, of Lebanon, arranged the marriage of her daughter before her 18th birthday. It is too easy, and incredibly lazy, to view this act through a different cultural lens and label it base or uncaring.
“My daughter is 16 and she loved school. She was top of her class and wanted to become an architect. But we were too worried for her. They were attacking women. We could not protect her, so we had to marry her.
“She is innocent and very pretty. I know that men are hurting women – old women, single women, everyone. She did not want to get married, she wanted to study. This is happening a lot in Syria, many women I know are marrying their daughters – even younger than 16 – to protect them.”
In the face of such external pressures, it seems solutions such as codifying legislation are small steps, but clearly not enough. If laws cannot be enforced because community leaders overrule outside influence, then the laws become impotent.
Girls Not Brides, a global partnership of over 400 civil society organisations committed to ending child marriage, focuses on local solutions tailored to individual communities, raising awareness and educating and empowering girls.
In many ways, it is apparent real change can only come as a result of a shift in an entire community’s attitude. One of the key components in some of these patriarchal cultures, is a shift in the thinking of male heads of households.
There is another key aspect – one that people from thousands of miles away can contribute to – the education and empowerment of young girls and women.
When Aaliyah was 14, she was married to a man who was 26. Coming from a poor background, without access to education or a medium through which to develop skills, marriage seemed her only option. At a CARE meeting to raise awareness about girls enduring child marriage in Egypt, Aaliyah told her story: “My mother in law was very rough with me, she kept insulting me all the time. My husband started beating me for every mistake. The family kept me doing all household chores and serving the whole family, so I miscarried my first and second pregnancies. I never had the chance to get antenatal health care.”
After some time, she took it upon herself to learn to read, write and develop her own skills.
“I decided to change my lifestyle, so I joined the factory to work and earn some money to raise my kids in a better way. For the first time, I feel like a human being and can face my own problems and tell my story to others; mainly to mothers to advise them not to marry their girls early.
“I want women to allow their daughters to continue their studies in order to be able to face the difficulties of marriage, man demand and children needs. I do not want other girls to suffer from all the problems I had faced.”
There are solutions and there is potential for progress, but without international pressure, support and political motivation, the sluggish progress of the last decade will repeat itself. Let’s accelerate this movement: educate girls, provide security and pressure states to intervene and support communities in changing their attitudes. No-one who can provide for themselves needs to be provided for.
The potential for change is very real. I am a living example of it. It took one woman with strength and – most importantly – options to make a change which will impact on generations of women ahead of her. If my grandmother had decided not to educate my mother, to give her the freedom to choose when to marry and to find the strength to say “No. There is another way,” this article would have been very different.
If you would like to help in the fight against child marriage, learn more at Girls Not Brides, where can you take a look at some of the projects on Global Giving involving young brides. Or, if you would like to donate directly to a specific cause (there are many hundreds), you can donate to the empowerment of adolescent girls through providing training and life skills, here.
 UNICEF, Ending Child Marriage: Progress and Prospects, 2014
 UNFPA, Marrying Too Young: End Child Marriage, 2012
 UNICEF, Progress for Children: A report card on adolescents, 2012
 State of the World’s Mothers 2014 – Save the Children
Bisha K Ali is a writer and comedian. Off stage, she can be found under a duvet with a notebook.