Akech loved to study and dreamed of becoming a nurse. But when she was 14, the uncle who was raising her told her she was too old for school and forced her to marry a man she described as old, gray-haired, and married to another woman with whom he had several children.
Akech, from South Sudan, begged her uncle to let her stay in school. He refused. “Girls are born so that people can eat,” he told her. “All I want is to get my dowry.” The old man paid 75 cows for Akech. She tried to resist the marriage, but her male cousins beat her severely, accused her of dishonoring her family, and forced her to go to the man’s house.
Like many girls in South Sudan, Akech was married off to the highest bidder. She never saw the inside of a classroom again.
In Yemen, South Sudan, and other parts of the world, instead of going to school or spending time with their friends and families, girls, some as young as 8, are married -- often to much older men. If the girls don’t want to marry, their families generally force them. After they are wed, life often changes for the worse.
Girls often drop out of school after marrying. In particularly conservative countries, on the eve of their marriage the girls may not even know what sex is – let alone birth control – and they quickly become pregnant. In part because they’re not physically or mentally fully developed, they can face a lifetime of health problems. Girls who marry young are also at a higher risk of physical and sexual abuse.
Human Rights Watch has researched the issue extensively, honing in on child marriage in Yemen, where 14 percent of girls are married before age 15 and 52 percent before 18, as well as in South Sudan, where close to half of girls between 15 and 19 are married. This is what we found.
Studies show that women who marry young are more likely to miscarry or have still births, or even die in childbirth, in large part because of their smaller pelvises and undeveloped bodies. South Sudan has the highest rate of women dying from childbirth in the world. According to Yemen’s government, 74 percent of all women who die from childbirth were married before age 20.
“I miscarried once when I was two months pregnant, then I got pregnant again after four months, and I miscarried when I was five months,” said 17-year-old Sultana, from Yemen, who was married at 16. “This is my third pregnancy. A woman here is only for reproduction.”
Girls younger than 18 are at a formative stage of social and psychological development, shaping their identities and perspectives. A girl may not know how to talk or relate to new people, or how to negotiate confrontations with her mother-in-law or sisters-in-laws. Mental health implications may include a sense of worthlessness, depression, and suicidal thoughts.
“They [her husband and in-laws] used to beat me,” said Reem, from Yemen, who was married at age 11. “I took a mousse [razor] and cut my wrists.”
Most girls leave school when they marry. Studies show that girls with limited education have little power in their marriages. Without the authority to stand up to their husbands, they have little control over how many children they have or how often they have children, increasing their risk of reproductive health problems. They also have a harder time finding jobs to support their family.
“My father refused me to go to school,” said Mary K, of South Sudan. “He said it is a waste of money to educate a girl. He said marriage will bring me respect in the community. Now I have grown up and I know that this is not true. I cannot get work to support my children and I see girls who have some education can get jobs.”
Vulnerability to abuse
A multi-country World Health Organization study showed that married women between 15 and 19 run a greater risk of being forced to have sex. In general, girls – with less confidence and life experience – are less likely than older women to have the power to stand up to their abusers.
“The man I loved did not have cows and my uncles rejected him,” said Ageer M., from South Sudan. “My husband paid 120 cows…. I refused him but they beat me badly and took me by force to him. The man forced me to have sex with him so I had to stay there.”
Adjusting to a new home
In many countries where child marriage is practiced, young girls move in with their husband’s extended families, increasing the likelihood of abuse by husbands or in-laws. Their new environment can be shocking, like a slap in the face. Men and older women top the power hierarchy, and young brides, on the lowest rung of the status ladder, are expected to labor, cooking and cleaning for the family.
“I used to argue with my mother-in-law because she says I can’t do anything,” said 14-year-old Fatima, from Yemen, who moved in with her husband’s family when they married. “He [her husband] hit me once with his hand on the left side of my face and on the right side of my face and ruptured my ear. He used to hit me all over my body, he used to kick me with his feet and call me all sorts of names. I used to remain silent, but would complain to my mother. She would tell me to remain tolerant, all girls go through the same, this is nothing new.”
These issues culminate in something bigger, though – they stretch the gap of gender inequality between men and women, making women second-class citizens. The United Nations Development Program cites child marriage as a factor in Yemen’s gender inequality problems. When young girls marry, they’re often denied access to education, and their rights to health and physical integrity. Yet they make up half of a population. And with half a population unable to contribute fully to society and their families, everyone is dragged down.