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The Modern Tragedy of Child Marriage

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Authors: Pooja Shah & Russell Whitehouse

“And just like that, my mother was married to the village chaiwala when she was 14!” I distinctly recall my grandmother saying as we sat together on the front porch, warmed by the mid-summer breeze.“14? She’s a child!” I gasped out of horror. “How can she be married? Her parents allowed it?” I ignorantly continued.

It was July 2011. I was visiting my now-late grandmother in Ahmedabad, Gujarat after a two-month writing excursion through Mussoorie. The first few days of my stay were filled with pleasantries and questions about school and life in “Amreeka”, quickly followed by the incessant questioning of when I would get married and if I found a suitable companion yet… Of course, to a 19-year old college sophomore student barely at the cusp of adulthood, marriage felt like an intangible figment of my imagination, as it did for most of my peers back home who were too occupied by finalizing our majors and what party to attend next weekend. However, as my grandmother spoke, summoning stories of her own mother, it became dauntingly obvious that not only marriage was the traditional norm, but marrying early was the expectation in the era she grew up in.

12% of girls in the developing world will be married off before the age of 15; in many of the world’s poorest countries, like Bangladesh, over half of girls will be married off before the age of 18.  According to the IWWC, over 400M women aged under 50 years old are survivors of child marriage. .Western countries aren’t exempt from this scourge: over 200k girls have been married in this current century in the US.

Although theoretically child marriage is outlawed in India, in many rural areas, impoverished families will often “give away” their children in exchange for fleeting economic security. Rooted deeply in religious, traditional and cultural norms, and often motivated by economic factors, many families view child marriages as a means to end their economic suffering.

My grandmother confided in me that her mother, a child herself, gave birth at the age of 16 with a husband who was nine years her senior. Dadi dismissed my shocking reaction and confirmed, once again, that this was not atypical. I began to realize over the course of our conversation the very limited rights and personal choices these children, particularly young girls, have. Their lives are a mere transaction: exchanging their livelihood and existence for a few rupees on their families behalf, all while being forced to forego their educations, childhood, hobbies, and sense of independence.

This commodification of the lives of girls reinforces a culture of deep misogyny. Being married off while school-age tends to end a girl’s education; less than half of child brides have completed primary (let alone higher) education.  This can create economic shackles for a girl in a marriage; without even a basic education, a girl or young woman is unlikely to find a job that can create any level of financial freedom.  Being saddled with a child from a young age also impedes a girl’s ability to leave the house to find work.  With this reality in mind, it’s no shock that child brides are 9% more likely to experience physical or sexual abuse (generally by a husband or parent in-law) than women.  A young lady with little education is less likely to be aware of legal options to end this suffering, like filing a domestic abuse complaint with the police or filing for divorce. 

Such a culture is likely to continue other degrading practices, like female genital mutilation and widow ostracizing, as well as create whole generations of traumatized girls and young women.  The systemic rape of young girls inevitably moves the social Overton window, making the rape of women, men and boys seem less important or even noteworthy.  Growing up in a household featuring such disparate power dynamics is liable to create a twisted sense of self-esteem and justice among children of child brides.  Mothers are one of the primary sources of the pedagogy of a child.  Thus, girls who were taken from their schools to get married would be less well equipped to contribute to their children’s education.  This would be especially apparent in terms of sexual education; a culture of child brides is intrinsically less able to teach its children about health topics like STDs and birth control, to say nothing of ethical issues like consent.

My dadi also revealed how her own mother suffered multiple miscarriages throughout her youth, as her body was not fully equipped to bear pregnancy. This is unsurprising; young girls aren’t biologically ready to go through the physical traumas of pregnancy and giving birth.  Pregnant girls under 15 have quintuple the maternal mortality rate of women; 88% of them suffer obstetric fistulae, which often lead to permanent disability.  Girls are also disproportionately likely to receive cervical lacerations during intercourse, which can lead to cervical cancer down the line.  The children resulting from these underage marriages suffer similar hazards.  Babies born to child brides are 28% more likely to die within their first 5 years of life than babies born to women.

When confronted by my bachelorette status (as I often was when I visited India), I remember I would always counter with “I have to finish school first”, acknowledging the privilege I had to control my education and career aspirations. When it comes to these child brides, often times marrying at a young age will likely mean an end to their education, and in turn, will hinder their ability to obtain the skills and knowledge that is vital for income-generating employment.

That day I was enraged by the fact that child marriage continues to exist in the 21st century, as well as my personal lack of awareness on the issue. It has been over eight years since that enlightening conversation, and thankfully due to the tireless efforts of activists, legislators, and advocates there has been movement towards ending child marriage. In fact, UNICEF and Indian Wedding Buzz joined forces earlier this year on Valentines’ Day to #EndChildMarriage, demonstrating that one of the most crucial steps in eradicating this humans right issue is to stand against it. By utilizing their global social media platform and influential magazine, the #EndChildMarriage initiative was aimed at raising awareness of the implications of child marriage and more importantly, how we, collectively, can help put a stop to it. The campaign further empowered young girls in many South Asian and African countries (i.e. Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, among nine others) with the information and resources to understand the implications of what they are being forced into. Furthermore, the program continued to develop national strategies with the efforts of government investments, religious leaders, and of course our community. This social media sensation, backed by Indian Wedding Buzz, demonstrated their respective commitment to being part of the change, so that we as South Asians, as Americans and as humans can follow suit to be part of this revolutionary movement. After all, there is strength in numbers.

New Social Compact

Herat, the fire’s bride

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The olive eyes of Shaista peep between the bandages covering her burnt body, for she, like so many other Afghan women from the city of Herat, decided to escape her life by way of fire.

Shaista arrived at the hospital burning between wisps of hair and fabric, and her 19-year-old body is now a landscape of lava.

Tears seep between the gauze and the passageways of her blistered skin. Compassion is the closest thing to love that she will experience, and the hands of the man who changed her bandages are amongst the few that didn’t strike her.

She set herself on fire for a crime she didn’t commit, one that doesn’t exist, or one that everyone else appears to see except her. Her crime was being born a woman.

According to Oxfam, 8 out of every 10 Afghan women suffer either physical, sexual or psychological violence.

In 2015, the Independent Afghan Commission for Human Rights registered 5,132 gender crimes and between April and June 2016 the Ministry of Women’s Affairs reported 600, but many go unreported.

The women who go to the police are at risk of being raped before being returned to their families. Those who escape for more than 48 hours face accusations of adultery, the punishment for which is either facial mutilation or death. Passed between relatives, offered to others to pay debts or settle disputes, raped and subjected to acid attacks in the streets; these women lose their mental stability and take their own lives in the most brutal way.

They usually come from lower social groups and as they don’t have access to guns or money to buy barbiturates, they drink rat poison, hang themselves, jump into rivers or set themselves on fire.

Although the families declare a ‘domestic accident’, it is easy to identify a suicide, as the majority are aged between 14-21 years old and are soaked in kerosene, when in fact most people use firewood or gas to do the cooking at home.

85% of Afghan women are unable to read or write and thus out of ignorance believe that they will die quickly. But instead they suffer for days before dying. Many pour boiling oil over themselves or drizzle it over their abdomen in order to raise attention to their plight, but sometimes the flames envelop them.

One of the most influential thinkers and leading Afghan practitioners in the field, Dr. Djawed Sangdel says: “Education is a key. This country needs a thorough horizontalisation of education for all.”

80% of those who arrive in hospital perish because of a lack of means to treat them, and if they do survive, they suffer lifelong consequences, for it is difficult to follow a course of treatment whilst carrying water and looking after numerous children.

Almost 40 years of war brought with it misery, poor health and lack of governance, under which the patriarchal system flourished; a system which made Afghanistan an open-air prison for women, causing them irreparable psychological damage.

The country’s laws tolerate tribal codes and 60% of girls under the age of 15 are forced to marry men double their age, according to the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan.

Studies from the UN Fund for the Development of Women reveal that the majority of widows sell their bodies or turn to begging in order to survive, and 65% of them see suicide as the only solution to their misery.

Herat, once known as the Pearl of Khorasan, is today a ghost town, with a horizon dotted with adobe houses, obsolete war munitions and faces hidden from the world behind the grille of a burka.

After a week in hospital, Shaista’s mother-in-law escaped with her to hide her at home, as her son simply didn’t deserve the shame of a suicidal wife.

Almost a month after the fire, she returned with wounds all over her body and without any feeling in her arms due to large necrotic areas. She did, however, survive – one of life’s cruel jokes.

Now with the same fears as before, scars from the fire on her skin and with only one arm to carry her daughter, Shaista is back in the place that she so wanted to flee.

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New Social Compact

Marcia Andrade Braga: A ‘stellar example’ of why more women are needed in UN peacekeeping

MD Staff

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Brazilian peacekeeper Lieutenant Commander Marcia Andrade Braga serves in the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA). Photo: MINUSCA

Training gender advisors and focal points in the Central African Republic (CAR) has earned a Brazilian United Nations peacekeeper a special gender advocate award, it was announced on Tuesday.

Secretary-General António Guterres will bestow naval officer, Lieutenant Commander Marcia Andrade Braga, with the UN Military Gender Advocate of the Year Award during the 2019 Peacekeeping Ministerial conference due to be held at UN Headquarters in New York this Friday.

“UN Missions need more women peacekeepers so local women can talk more freely about the issues that affect their lives”, said Lt. Cdr. Braga.

“I am so proud to be selected”, she said, upon receiving news of her award, also expressing gratitude to her colleagues in the UN Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA).

Serving as the Military Gender Advisor at MINUSCA Headquarters since April 2018, Lt. Cdr. Braga has helped to build a network of trained gender advisors and focal points among the Mission’s military units and promoted mixed teams of men and women to conduct community-based patrols around the country.

These “Engagement Teams” were able to gather critical information to help the Mission understand the unique protection needs of men, women, boys and girls, which in turn helped develop community projects to support vulnerable communities.

Projects include the installation of water pumps close to villages, solar-powered lighting and the development of community gardens to cut down the distances women have to travel, to tend their crops.

Lt. Cdr. Braga is also a driving force behind MINUSCA leadership’s engagement with local women leaders, making sure that the voice of Central African women is heard throughout the ongoing peace process.

Moreover, as a former teacher she has also helped train and raise awareness among her peers on gender dynamics within the Mission.

Jean-Pierre Lacroix, who heads the UN Department of Peace Operations, spelled out: “Marcia Andrade Braga is a stellar example of why we need more women in peacekeeping: Peacekeeping works effectively when women play meaningful roles and when women in the host communities are directly engaged”.

Created in 2016, the UN award recognizes the dedication and effort of an individual peacekeeper in promoting the principles of UN Security Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325) on women, peace and security, which underscores the “3 Ps”, to prevent conflict; protect women and their rights during and after conflict; and to increase the numbers of women participating in all mechanisms, to prevent and resolve conflict.

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New Social Compact

Davos: The Other Side of the Mirror

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It has been a couple of months since I was hanging out in Davos learning about this year’s World Economic Forum.  Perhaps I have a unique view, because I am the founder of Peppr and Ohlala, described as “the one dating app where everyone’s intentions are very clear.”  and the person said to be responsible for the #escortgate controversy, in which paid escorts showed up at one of the world’s most exclusive investor conferences in Berlin in 2016. I am also the author of the statement that “We all have sexwork to do,” I follow up on all conversations related to escorting and sexwork, which I deliberately call “paid dating.”

I have been following up on the conversations ever since: about world leaders said to be not acting as role models (or acting as bad role models), about the hypocrisy over sustainability, philanthropic models or the proposals to adjust taxes for the wealthier among us to secure a basic standard of living for all, a conversation the ones directly affected seemed to be avoiding.

Davos, as we know, brings together so many of the world’s most powerful leaders –parleys occur, deals are made and opportunities appear that likely don’t ever arise elsewhere. And among these deal makers are people whose drive takes other avenues. 

As one woman was quoted as saying: “It’s the kind of place where if a woman turns away to exit a conversation and looks back just quickly enough, she’ll find her posterior aesthetic being carefully dissected by the man who just asked her for her business card — even if he is the CEO of a major bank. When we weren’t being asked how we got here, we were constantly being stared up and down by CEOs, hedge fund managers, finance ministers and embassy heads.”

However, I am still a bit confused about the opinionated statements that were going on this year after Davos. It’s the same debates and thoughts we had around #escortgate.I have been wondering how to productively progress the conversation around this morally, emotionally loaded topic, because clearly we are running around in circles.

What I have seen is a whole lot of personal, subjective judgments of people sometimes labeled as “escorts” and how they are not supposed to be around in places like Davos. I had hoped for a more deliberate thought-through conversation, a dialogue, but mostly what I read stigmatizes and judges people on their very personal choices and agreements: how they want (or have to — as most of us do) to make money, to afford a living.

“I don’t want to be mistaken for a prostitute”

You might wonder which conversations or statements I was so confused about. First, about the existence of escorts at the Forum, by a young woman named Baillie Aaron:

“And then I heard the whispers of what happens at night, at the parties, in the hotel lobbies and at the famous Piano Bar where it was an unspoken understanding that some men ‘took off their wedding rings.’ Almost all my male colleagues commented on the presence of female escorts at these venues, many of which were guest-list only, or required a hotel badge to access. A quick online search displayed a number of articles confirming that the existence of and easy access to escorts at Davos is nothing new, and what for some delegates, could be a strong motivator to attend.” Statement found here.

Demand creates supply. It’s as simple as that and from an economic standpoint, I do understand wo/men going there to seek business, in any sense. Also, on that particular one.

However, I wonder: What is so bad about the “existence of and easy access of escorts” in the first place? Why shouldn’t there be men or women who get paid to date at the World Economic Forum? If it’s true, maybe some men took off rings because they are in an open marriage? Why would you care about someone else’s choice? (Unless you are the wife of that person and you have a personal private agreement to stay physically faithful and not take the ring off.)

In Switzerland, at least, if there really were some men or women paid to have sex, it would be legal and regulated — not even a breach of law. For me, these workers should be as much part of the conversation as anyone else in Davos.

Actually, given the current political environment in the US around the topic of sexwork, they should definitely be part of the conversations, because this industry screams:“Please reinvent me and improve circumstances for those who are not protected. Make it safer for everyone involved.”

Some politicians already seem to be having a change of heart. Decriminalization is their way forward. Going along with all the standing proposals of Amnesty International.

What else has been subject of the realm on feeling “unsafe” or “discriminated” at Davos.

I look and check bodies all the time myself, with men and women. I can appreciate a beautiful person without having the urge to hook up. We do checkout people all the time — on Instagram and Facebook. But we are not allowed to look in real life? Everyone does it. Recently, I have found myself with other people in the office kitchen wondering how cute the new intern is. #Wetoo do it.

Third quote about warnings regarding sexual harassment

“At the Davos opening Women’s Reception, with some male allies in attendance, I asked a question: Why is it that in 2019, young female delegates are forewarned about sexual harassment — as if it’s our responsibility to protect ourselves — but the delegates themselves aren’t given training on how (or why) not to harass? There was no answer, other than a murmuring recognition that it was a known issue: many of the women who attended in past years had personal experience of sexual harassment.”

What is actually sexual harassment?Can we come up with a definition?Does sexual harassment go both ways?Where does it start?Where to draw the line?

There is always two sides of the story and I feel like, in the realm of the “gender narrative debate” (certain traits assigned to genders because of a gender), we need to let both parties speak in order to find a common ground. What one attempt-to-hit-on-someone finds okay, another may feel totally offended.

Of course we could be confused anyway. Every third relationship evolves in a work-related context. So that means, including these events, it could be a dating market as well, right? Personally, 90 percent of my time, I am surrounded by people with whom I somehow work together. The chances that I meet someone that I want to partner up with is high. So naturally, events like this also create a space where I might get to know someone for a night, maybe more.

I understand, there are certain limits: If someone runs up to someone during the day time event in a straightforward business context and does a pussy or penis grab (Presidential style?), I understand negative sentiment. But if people (yes, men AND women) hit on each other in a Piano Bar to romantic music at 2 in the morning, after a couple of glasses of wine or even four gin and tonics, where people go to hang loose and left the laptop in their hotel room, you cannot possibly be surprised that this is happening.

Again, it goes both ways. We all forget our manners sometimes, when we are drunk (or high, or whatever). On a personal note: The most aggressive hit on me ever was by a drunken woman, not a man.

“I think about what I wear more because there are a lot of prostitutes in Davos, especially at the Piano Bar,” one woman said, referencing the popular late-night hot spot. “I don’t want to be mistaken for a prostitute.”

When we gender mainstream almost everything, even adjust anthems of countries, toilet signs, why don’t we just get rid of that particular word too? Or best: all of them: escort, prostitute, whore. Those devaluating terms are connected directly to women. We will not evolve in any of the conversations if we use preconceived terms. We need to let go of these terms.When we talk empowerment, we need to empower all women (or people in general). That certainly includes also those who get paid to date.

I would like to start proposing a couple of solutions and quick fixes.Here are some ideas that I would like to propose as to how to progress in this entire discussion:

Power of perception: Could you, instead looking down toward this type of entrepreneur, take it as a compliment?Flip the coin. Be bold and brave. So what? Maybe that person misread the signs? If he/she thinks you want to be paid to date: just say. ‘No, I don’t‘.  This way you are still respecting other people, especially women who do this — as a personal choice entering into an agreement — and you maintain your own integrity. Problem solved. That I find acting out of a position of power, instead of victimizing yourself.

Let’s stop gender blaming!People can have female and male traits. This makes the whole gender debate almost irrelevant. This is “how men are” or this is “how women are” is simply stereotyping our way to further separation. Even the Davos Vanity Fair – as my legendary professor Anis H. Bajrektarevic calls the WEF – advocates the gender neutrality.

This whole finger pointing and mansplaining doesn’t solve anything but create negative sentiment because we simply sometimes don’t know anymore as to how to behave in certain contexts. I feel like the whole dynamic is ruled by fear, as to what we are not supposed to do, instead of relearning how we can handle each other in certain contexts. Reframe it in a positive way. Look at it as a chance or opportunity.

And it goes both ways, this #metoo. We have to find a common ground towards a #wetoo. From he said, he did, she said, she did. We need to evolve to a “#wetoo are going to solve this together.”

3. Education is key.We need proper training of all sorts on how to handle each other. Why not invest in our (work) relationships?

Maybe we need to elaborate a guideline. We could design a new sort of “Knigge” or a Code of Conduct on how to behave in a work-related context. This could help navigate through some uncertainties, especially if cultures vary across borders and continents.

Or maybe even a defense class to train people for difficult situations. For example: I had a compulsory defense class in middle school. We were trained by really big guys to defend ourselves. The impact in my life? I always feel/felt safe, because though I might be physically inferior, I know some really important tricks. It gave me a lifelong confidence.Maybe that’s what we all have to learn at the end of the day: articulate our intentions properly and (be able to) show the limits.

Imagine a world, free from personal judgement, where “it” would be decriminalized. People active in this field could seek help if they needed it and would pay taxes. The proceeds of the taxes could be used to combat negative forces within this market.

That for me, is a desirable future. One I would like to help shape.What do you think?

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