What is the right age for a girl to become a woman?
"The transformation of gender relations in the developing world is the greatest social revolution of our era, and we need to keep that in mind in everything we do" Dr. John Coonrod, Executive Vice President of The Hunger Project.
In a barren region of southern Ethiopia, 13-year-old Dhaki worries about whether she will be pregnant as a result of her husband – 11 years her senior – forcing himself upon her last night, and whether her neighbours heard her late night cries will subsequently eschew her for not valuing the needs of her husband.
The saddest component of Dhaki's story is that she and the 600 million adolescent girls in developing countries being forced into child marriage could have been the most powerful people in a community. If a teenage girl of a developing community finishes her education, learns vital skills, remains healthy, marries and has children in her twenties, she has the potential to be a community's greatest asset.
"When she can grow into a woman and become an educated mother, an economic actor, an ambitious entrepreneur, or a prepared employee, she breaks the cycle of poverty" says Tarama Kreinin, Executive Director of Women and Population at the United Nations Foundation.
Prematurely ejecting a girl into womanhood does much more than rob her of her childhood. Child marriage grinds the cycle of insufficiency, detriment and despair. The health statistics concerning child brides are daunting. According to the women's rights charity Maternity Worldwide, in developing countries, 40% of women give birth before reaching the age of 20 and these girls have a 20–200% higher risk of dying from pregnancy related causes.
Subordinating a girl so that she is the procession of her husband does much more than just puts her own life at risk. For every baby whose mother has died at childbirth it is more likely to be undernourished, prone to diseases, and has nobody to ensure they are enrolled at school, hence the vicious cycle of inequality, poverty and destitution.
Talking of the drivers that perpetrate the hapless cycle that child marriage effects, Rowan Harvey, Policy and Advocacy Officer for Plan UK, one of the largest child-centred community development organisations in the world, told me:
"Developing communities have a very different perception of the potential of daughters. Whilst we believe education is the best way to secure a girl's future, some communities believe it is a girl's reproductive system."
The world does, however, have the power to thwart the destruction child marriage and children bearing children brings. In contradiction to the popular assumption that this power lies within the hands of the West, it lies at the feet of the poor. What the West needs to do is support the women of communities where tradition, culture and religion is being used, and 'abused' as John Coonrad tells me, to help them to overthrow the patriarchal authority system that devalues girls and women that has been etched onto societies for centuries.
Change is primarily enforced when local leadership is taken on and is reinforced when it becomes an issue of law.
"As women gain voice in decision-making and learn their rights they are at the forefront of demanding change. Men eventually support it once they really think about it – but this takes time" says Dr. Coonrad.
Whether or not donor governments and inter-governmental organizations 'have the right' to end these patriarchal authority systems, is not so much an issue of culture but an issue of law. Putting an end to this unethical act that is preventing communities from 'moving forward' has become a social movement, initiated, primarily, by local leadership, local female leadership.
One such powerful figure committed to ending child marriage is Gita Rani Bormon from the village of Jelkhali in Bangladesh. In 2010 The Hunger Project reported that this confident and determined Bangladeshi lady who works for a charitable organization 'Women's Empowerment' has made remarkable inroads in impeding child marriage in her community. According to the report, the extreme poverty and oppression of women that Gita had witnessed daily made her deeply regretful.
Inspired by local Union Parish Chairman Alamgir Haydar, Gita joined a training programme provided by The Hunger Project in Bangladesh and became determined to end the practise of early marriage, promote women's empowerment and, by doing so, impede hunger and unbridle human soul.
As a consequence of Gita Rani Bormon's commitment to raising awareness, implementing social action to liberate the rights of women and subsequently help alleviate hunger and oppression, within one year early marriage has been reduced by 30% in Bangladesh.
This is a vivid example of how local leadership is the driving force behind successfully ceasing child marriage from communities and in doing so liberating developing regions from the devastating cycle of adolescent girls perpetrating poverty. Rita Rani Bormon's case also illustrates how important it is that donor governments and humanitarian organizations choose to support the local champions of human rights. And when all three –the communities, governmental bodies and local leadership– work together, the results, as proved with Gita Rani Bormon's success story in Bangladesh, are prolific.
Dr. John Coonrod reiterates the importance that international donors understand the history and context behind the transformation of gender relations in the developing world.
"This issue is not so much intervention, as choosing to support those local champions of human rights. It is vitally important that we understand that women in Asia, Africa and Latin America have been fighting for their rights for generations, this is not a Western idea, it is a human idea. Donors have often NOT supported these local champions; putting their money, instead, into the hands of the status quo, and thus intervening on the wrong side of history."
Perhaps then, and only then, will 13-year-old Dhaki from Ethiopia, be better fortified to stand up to her husband's wantonness and less afraid that the village will abjure her for not respecting his wishes.
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