Friday, 19 October 2007

Child Brides: Stolen Lives

Bilikisu doesn't want to marry. She is adamant about this. But in her village nobody heeds the opinions of headstrong little girls. She is desperate to turn herself into an adult. Then maybe, just maybe, her family would respect her wishes not to wed. She could rebuff the strange man her papa has chosen to be her husband. And she wouldn't have to bear his babies.

Bilikisu's short legs can't carry her away fast enough from the death of her childhood. Her wedding is five days away. And she is seven years old.

Child Brides: Stolen Lives is the title of one of the many documentaries showcased at this year's Women Deliver Global Conference, a conference aimed to reduce maternal and child mortality. The conference, held on October 18-20 in London, brings together medical practitioners, health workers, government bodies, teachers, and advocates to pressure governments into integrating maternal, newborn and child health into their budgets and health plans.

Bilikisu's story is one of many. Coerced by family and culture into lives of servility and isolation, scarred by the trauma of too-early pregnancy, child brides represent a vast, lost generation of children. According to child-rights activists, an estimated 50 million Bilikisus are scattered across the world--young teen or preteen girls whose innocense is sacrificed to arranged marriages, often to older men.

The most far-reaching injustice of child marriage by far is probably its most subtle: it pries millions of young girls out of school. Confined to their husbands' homes, cheated of the benefits of education, these legions of demoralized children are condemned to lives of ignorance and dire poverty from which they rarely escape, and which they endure with numbed desperation.

All the misery and pain occur in silence. They are just children. They don't speak out. They are never heard from.

Problems attributed to child marriage include health and education issues such as poor health, early death and lack of educational opportunities. Education is the most important key to helping end the practice of forced child marriages. Many believe that education may prove to be more successful in preventing child marriages than simply banning child marriages. It is important to provide education to children and parents that will broaden their horizons and convince parents that educating their children is beneficial to their future.

Apart from reading, math, and writing, young girls should learn life skills (including reproduction and contraception information), as well as how to have fun and how to play in sports--all of this is proving to be a positive way to change the lives and futures of adolescent girls.

In India, child marriages have reduced by up to two-thirds due to more educational opportunities for young girls. Girls who are able to complete primary school tend to marry later and have fewer children, thus lowering the rate of maternal and child mortality.

*Reported by Adanma Ike

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