Last year when I travelled to Uganda, I met Dembe, a survivor of child marriage. Our conversation was a real eye-opener to me and, to be honest, it was as heartbreaking as it was hopeful.
We sat in a simple classroom at Dembe’s school – my heart was still warmed by the singing that had greeted us when we arrived. It was baking hot. Dembe sat behind one of the basic wooden desks beside a World Vision interpreter. Through the windows behind her were the red fields and shadeless trees I’d passed on my way in, along with a sign:
‘Marriage can wait. Education can’t.’
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Dembe was still only 16, and her face with its beautiful high cheekbones seemed too childlike to have been through the experiences she’s had. But the pain in her eyes told another story.
She told me that a young man took an interest in her, bringing her treats at recess. An alarm bell went off in my head – he was grooming her. But Dembe was too young to understand, and her parents had passed away – she was an orphan with no support except for her grandmother who was so poor she could no longer pay for Dembe’s schooling.
Before long, this man’s interest in Dembe grew overwhelming and she felt confused. Many of her friends were getting married and she thought maybe this was what she was supposed to do. She ended up marrying the man without telling anyone and lived with him for three months before becoming suicidal and running away.
As she told me her story, she pressed her hand to her forehead, gripped by sudden emotion at memories that she could not share. I felt like crying myself. Dembe should not have gone through this.
But the fact is, in the two minutes it’s taken you to read this, 46 girls have been married. That’s around 12 million girls married every year.
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Child marriage is child abuse. It’s institutionalised rape, with horrendous consequences, including the increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases, cervical cancer, malaria, death during childbirth, and obstetric fistulas. It ends education. Babies born to underage girls are at increased risk for premature birth, and are more likely to die as newborns, infants, or children.
Child marriage is a hideous practice, but often families don’t culturally see it as ‘wrong’. For many, it’s a way of simply easing financial pressure.