When she was 6-years-old Gabriella Gillespie’s father murdered her mother. At 13, he took her and her sisters to his native country, Yemen, where he sold them as child brides.
Despairing the prospects of marrying the man in his 60s to whom she was promised, Gabriella’s 17-years-old sister, Issy, donned her wedding dress and flung herself off the roof. Issy plunged to her death while unwitting guests continued the festivities.
As told in The Independent, the remaining sisters, who spoke no Arabic, were resigned to living in a remote mountain village – a far cry from any modern comforts, in mud dwellings with no electricity.
In the rural community, girls are married as young as 8-years old; some die on their wedding night while some are horrifically torn. Consummation occurs on a throne swathed in white cloth, after which, the family displays the bloodied fabric like a prized trophy. The girl is well aware of her fate if she does not bleed – she will be returned to her family and murdered, hinging on the belief that she was not a virgin.
Following years of a physically, sexually, emotionally, and mentally abusive marriage, Gabriella eventually fled to the UK with her five children.
Macabre stories like these are not reserved just for those from developing countries. Gabriella is British-born – like her English mother. And according to Unchained At Last, in the US alone, over 200,000 minors have been legally married between 2000 and 2015. The harrowing reality is that 12 million girls are married all around the world every year, which means it is happening to one girl every two seconds.
Rachel Yates, Interim Executive Director at Girls Not Brides, the global partnership to end child marriage said: “Child brides can be found in every region in the world, from the Middle East to Latin America, South Asia to Europe. At its heart, child marriage is rooted in gender inequality and the belief that girls and women are somehow inferior to boys and men. Poverty, lack of education, cultural practices, and insecurity fuel and sustain the practice. These girls are neither physically nor emotionally ready to become wives and mothers. They are usually put under huge pressure to have children before their bodies are ready, and to have lots of them. They face more risks of experiencing dangerous complications in pregnancy and childbirth, contracting HIV/AIDS and suffering domestic violence. It also doesn’t only harm the girls themselves. Research shows that it is costing the world trillions of dollars. If we end child marriage then girls, their families, communities, and countries will all be healthier and wealthier.”
“Caroline” from Kenya told Equality Now, a charity dedicated to improving the human rights of women and girls, that she was just 7-years-old when her mother orchestrated her circumcision in preparation for marriage. The indelible incident proved to be brutal, excruciating, and traumatic.
Soon after, Caroline discovered that her mother had planned to marry her to a man who was aged between 50 and 60. She fled before daybreak one day to a TNI centre, where she was given the opportunity to start rebuilding her life and going to school again.
“In the first instance, there are girls whose families enter into agreements with other families to marry a boy or a man,” Jean-Paul Murunga, a Program Officer from Equality Now explained.
“The next case is where the age of marriage is defined by religion. In Islam, for example, the religious texts state that a girl should marry when she reaches puberty. Because it is such an ambiguous term, there is no clear definition of what age puberty is according to Islam. In places like Sudan where Sharia Law exists, girls are being married between 10 and 12-years-old. You also see a lot of child brides in patriarchal societies. Girls there are viewed as subordinates and need to conform to what men dictate. A lot of times, they are married between the ages of 16 and 18-years old because their parents or guardians give consent. Another major factor is poverty. Poor families can improve their finances by giving the girl away as a bride. When she is younger and a virgin, she is considered to be pure and as such, her dowry will be higher. Families want to give the girl away before puberty due to the concern that if she passes that age, there is a higher chance she will engage in sexual activities, spoil the family name, or affect her dowry price. And the last scenario occurs in countries that experience political conflict where people are being displaced. Families give their daughters away to richer families in the hopes that she will be safe and better off. Yet, the reality is that it opens her to a web of violence, sexual abuse, and child marriage.”
Child marriage remains a complex issue, and there is no silver bullet solution. Experts believe that education is the key – not just academically but also for the extended community of those most affected.
UNICEF published a report earlier this year, which showed some decreases in child marriage around the globe. But unless social norms and gender inequalities are properly addressed, these girls will continue to not receive the 21st century emancipation that they rightfully deserve.