Print options

October 28, 2011

Forced Marriage Continues in Many Countries

by Elizabeth Lee

Young girls forced into marriage is still a reality in many parts of the world, and it doesn't just happen in developing nations.  Activists, African first ladies and victims gathered at a conference in Los Angeles to talk about the problem and what can be done to change the practice of child brides.

Millions of girls and young women around the world are married against their will before 18 years old.  Jasvinder Sanghera is born in Britain and of Indian descent.  Her sisters were taken out of school in England at 15 and married to men they have never met.

"I was 14 when my mother presented the photograph of the man I was to learn I was promised to when I was eight, and I was the one who said, 'No, I'm not marrying this man,'" Sanghera recalled.

Unlike her sisters, Sanghers ran away and was disowned by her parents and siblings.

"I'm seen as the shameful dishonorable daughter who could contaminate their families and their children too," added Sanghera.  "Going to school was one thing.  Going home and closing your front door it was another world. That was the stronger world of the two."

Sanghera is now educating others about how strong traditional beliefs in the practice of forced marriage is still happening in both first and third world countries.  For Indians living in Britain, she says it is not uncommon for a daughter to be married to a man in India so he can have a British passport.

In South Asia, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, where the practice of child brides and forced marriages are most prevalent, the ideals of honor and shame are also reasons why girls marry early.

"Families are afraid for girls to get active sexually early before they are married. That would bring shame to the family if that happened, if the girl was to become pregnant particularly," said Anne Goddard of Child Fund International. 

Goddard notes that for many communities, poverty is one major reason of why families force their young daughters into marriage.  "Families can't afford to raise and feed and educate a girl so they're more likely to then encourage a girl to marry early," Goddard added.

However, she says keeping the girls in school through compulsory education can help stop the practice marrying girls at a young age.

"It's well documented that every year longer that a girl stays in school, she grows up to be healthier, the children she has end up being healthier," Goddard explained.  "When girls can stay in school they can also contribute to the income of their own family."

First lady Chantal Compaore of Burkina-Faso says her country started a program that has kept many girls in school.

"We started to give food to those girls at the end of each week [so] that they do stay in school, so their parents cannot say that they're losing money or food or this work force when their girls are going to school instead of staying at home and work[ing,]" Compaore said.

Ann Warner from the International Center for Research on Women says there needs to be more coordination between leaders from governments and grassroots organizations to continue the work that has already been done in preventing early forced marriages.

"There's plenty of evidence from around the world that communities are changing," said Warner.

But change is not happening fast enough for Jasvinder Sanghera.  She says Indian girls in Britain and other parts of the world are still being married off without their consent and they are accepting the practice as normal.  She says not only do parents need to be educated, but girls also need to be empowered to know they have the right to refuse a marriage.