Too Young to Wed

In Zambia, Enerstrida Mirriam Michelo’s parents told her that she was going to be married. She was only 12- years-old. She was then held captive for three months where she faced constant abuse. “My parents said I had no choice,” she explains.

A friend’s visit changed her life because it gave her a chance to send a note to her teacher pleading for help. Her teacher reported the incident and the World Young Women's Christian Association (WYWCA) came to retrieve her before she was forced into a marriage that would end her education and any hope for a career. She was sent to a center and given the opportunity to continue her education. She has dreams of becoming a nurse.

“I was lucky not to be a child bride,” she says. Many girls around the world are not so lucky. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), over the next 10 years, 50 million girls are at risk of being married before the age of 15. The significant age difference between a child bride and her spouse can also expose them to physical, psychological, economic and sexual violence, as well as restrictions on their movement. Married children may experience conditions that can be legally considered slavery and slavery-like practices.

Early and frequent pregnancies, forced continuation of pregnancy and childbirth are all common in child marriages and they are closely linked with high maternal and infant morbidity and mortality rates. Child marriage and early childbearing are also recognized as significant obstacles to ensuring educational, employment and other economic opportunities for girls and women.

A photography exhibition, “Too Young to Wed”, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, highlights the issue of child marriage through more than 30 moving photographs of child brides by U.S. photojournalist Stephanie Sinclair. There is also a video by U.S. documentary photojournalist Jessica Dimmock that tells their personal stories. Mirriam had the opportunity to share her courageous story during a special event launching the exhibit at the Palais des Nations, which was co-organized by the UN Human Rights Office and UNFPA.

“This exhibition tells us that child marriage remains widespread in many countries, despite the adoption of domestic and regional legal frameworks forbidding this practice,” says UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay during the launch of the exhibit. “I am using the language “child marriage” but with repugnance, since it is an anachronism to call this abuse marriage.”

Through these searing images, visitors of the exhibit become acquainted with a group of young girls around the world who have been forced into an early marriage, some as young as 6.

In front of their home in Yemen, Tehani, who was married at age 6, stands alongside her 27-year-old husband. “I was so scared. I was shaking, shaking. And, whenever I saw him, I hid. I hated to see him,” she says.

In Nepal, Bishai and his new bride Surita, both age 16, receive visitors after their wedding. It is also common for boys in Nepal to be married at a young age.

In a rural area of Ethiopia, Addisu, age 23, stands with his 11-year-old bride Destaye. Since Addisu is a priest, his community gave Destaye to him at such a young age because she was a virgin. Today, she is 16 and unable to continue her education after the birth of her son. “I feel sad because I quit learning,” she says.

In Afghanistan, Ghulam, age 11, sits with her new husband Faiz, age 40, after their wedding. She had hopes of becoming a teacher, but her parents pulled her out of school on the day of her engagement.

The exhibition “Too Young to Wed” was inaugurated by the Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the International Day of the Girl Child in October 2012 and continues to travel raising awareness of child marriage.

“Its message is clear: we must invest in these girls if child marriage is to end in this generation,” says UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin during the launch of the exhibit. “When girls are empowered to stay in school, avoid being married and pregnant early, and gain critical life skills, they can build a foundation for a better life for themselves and their families.”

The event featured an interactive dialogue with Dr. Osotimehin, Enerstrida Mirriam Michelo, former child bride and human rights activist; Benedetto Della Vedova, Undersecretary of State, Italy; Lynne Yelich, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Canada; Hooria Mashhour, Minister of Human Rights, Yemen; Mireya Agüero de Corrales, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Honduras; and Ellen Løj, Chair of NGO Plan International. The panel addressed the issue of child marriage, early and forced marriage, and the advances that have been made to combat early child marriage. Her Royal Highness Princess Mabel van Oranje of the Netherlands moderated the discussion.

“Too Young to Wed” was brought to the Palais des Nations by the UN Human Rights Office and UNFPA.

In June, Pillay will present a report to the Human Rights Council on preventing and eliminating child, early and forced marriage, with a particular focus on challenges, achievements, best practices and implementation gaps.

Celebrated annually on 8 March, the 2014 theme for International Women’s Day is: “Equality for women is progress for all”.

6 March 2014

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