When I was growing up in Hong Kong, I listened with amazement to the stories about girls who were married off when they were hardly 12 years old. I was relieved that such an old-fashioned practice had vanished. Cramming for exams didn’t seem so bad after all.
Unfortunately, I was wrong.
Child marriage has not vanished. It prevails today in various parts of the world. Girls under 15 and the babies born to them face mortality rates several times greater than those who are over 18, according to the World Health Organization. These young mothers also are subjected to the risk of obstetric fistula. This condition, says Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres, leads to leakage of urine and feces for the rest of their lives.
In my recent travel to the coastal area of Kenya, I observed the efforts of the Catholic Church to eradicate child marriage. Working in partnership with the Catholic Diocese of Malindi and a council of interfaith leaders that included Christians, Muslims, Hindus and African traditionalists, Catholic Relief Services sponsored a three-year initiative that reached out to 5,000 girls, 140 clerics, 60 community leaders and 120 adults.
The game plan calls for raising awareness of the dangers associated with early child marriage; promoting the rights of children, including those of girls for education and proper treatment; increasing the income of adults to reduce their dependence on dowries as a source of money; connecting with the proper government ministries to enforce these rights; and educating the children of their rights and the actions they can take to protect themselves.
As the practice of child marriage is steeped in the cultural traditions of the communities, the religious leaders convened forums to educate the public using texts from their holy books, inviting women scholars to talk to the mothers and daughters, lifting up role models and celebrating women and children through events such as International Women’s Day and Day of the African Child.
Child marriage and the use of young girls for prostitution often are seen as ways to relieve economic hardship.
To combat this, special programs were started to help communities expand livelihood options, such as growing vegetable gardens, breeding livestock and starting cottage craft industries. Savings circles that set aside communal funds to address emergencies as well as pay school levies and fees were another addition.
Most powerful for me was a visit to a school where 150 students in fourth to eighth grade crowded into the classroom to show us what they had learned about children’s rights from their weekly after-school meetings of the “peace club.”
They opened with prayer and sparkled their presentation with spirit, curiosity and pride. They sang and chanted in English the verses that resonated from deep within, an unflinching proclamation of their rights to a happy life, one enabled by health, education and love.
They called on the elders to continue the care and protection that had been provided when they were younger.
Most important, they know that they could report any unwelcome practices, whether these are forced on them or on other children. Boys and girls were there in solidarity, and I could not help but feel the promise of these young people.
Woo is president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services.