Can Child Marriages Be Stopped? : Parallels Across the developing world, 1 in 3 girls marries before age 18. Some are wed and become mothers by the time they reach their teens. In Malawi, some villages have started to punish parents who marry off their young daughters.
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Can Child Marriages Be Stopped?

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Can Child Marriages Be Stopped?

Can Child Marriages Be Stopped?

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block.

In the U.S., we talk a lot about people getting married later and later in life. But in vast parts of the world, parents often marry off young girls who are barely out of puberty. One-in-three girls in the developing world are married before she's age 18, one-in-nine before she's 15. Western nations and aid groups have been stepping up pressure, along with local activists, all struggling to change age old practices.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports from the southern African nation of Malawi.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: I head out of the sleepy city of Blantyre to the countryside. It's a bone-jarring journey on deeply rutted dirt roads. We pass a crowded, hillside cluster of wood shacks. Outdoor markets sell used electronics and secondhand shoes. Then the land opens up to flat brown fields, waiting to be planted with maize. After an hour, we pull into a loose collection of mud brick homes, with roofs of thatch or corrugated metal.


LUDDEN: And here an area called Chitera, I meet a shy-mannered girl with close cropped hair.

CHRISTINA ASIMA: (Foreign language spoken)

LUDDEN: I'm 13, says Christina Asima. She wears a bright pink zip-up shirt and a blue print cloth wrapped up to her chest. Snuggled in that, hugging her side, is a chubby cheeked baby boy.


LUDDEN: How old?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

ASIMA: (Through translator) Eight months.

LUDDEN: What's his name?

ASIMA: Praise.

LUDDEN: Praise, hi.

My gut reaction is that Praise must be Christina's little brother. I know he's not. Still, it's startling when, as we speak, Christina shifts him around front to nurse.

ASIMA: (Through translator) I was 12 years old when I got married to my husband. Just because my mom run away from me, so I was forced to get married to help my other siblings.

FAITH PHIRI: When they see a girl child in our country, you don't think of anything else but marriage.

LUDDEN: That's Faith Phiri, a Malawian activist trying to change such attitudes. Five years ago, she created a nonprofit, the Girls Empowerment Network.


LUDDEN: Here in Chitera, Phiri checks in with a circle of village leaders. She says child marriage is driven by a complex mix of culture, economics and sexism. Offering up a daughter can bring parents a dowry or pay down a debt. Some see it as a way to protect a girl's virginity. The common thread: The girl herself has no say. Even more devastating?

PHIRI: Getting pregnant.

LUDDEN: Phiri says many girls' bodies are simply not developed enough to support a baby or push it out.

PHIRI: I've seen a lot of girls dying. One of whom was my closest friend. She was forced into marriage, got pregnant, and she didn't make it.

LUDDEN: In fact, pregnancy and childbirth are the leading causes of death worldwide for girls age 15 to 19.

Down a dusty alley, past a make-shift movie theatre, Phiri leads me to another family in Chitera. In a courtyard, over a plastic bucket, a girl in a denim skirt scrubs white cloth diapers.


LUDDEN: She is also 13.

And how did you spell your name?


LUDDEN: Arinafe Makwiti says the diapers are for her nine-month-old daughter. Out of earshot, she blames her parents for her situation.

MAKWITI: (Through translator) They didn't want me to go to school, but rather to get married.

LUDDEN: There was no ceremony. No celebration. Arinafe simply moved in with her new husband's family. She says it was awful.

When a girl marries young, experts say she's often little more than a servant, vulnerable to domestic violence. Arinafe's husband was older - she's not sure how much - and taller.

MAKWITI: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: The first day, it was like he was big and she looked herself as very small and that's how she felt.

LUDDEN: So what was your first night with this person like, with your husband?

MAKWITI: (Through translator) I cried because the pain was very unbearable.

(Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: The husband asked her: Why are you crying. So she said I'm feeling too much pain. But he continued.

LUDDEN: Unfortunately, Arinafe says, I got pregnant. She and her husband have since divorced.

Arinafe's mother, Rose, is not happy about the split. We speak as an action movie blares next door.

ROSE MAKWITI: (Foreign language spoken)

LUDDEN: My daughter was running around too much, she says. I thought marriage would settle her down. What about school? Arinafe says she wants to go back. Makwiti's face hardens.

MAKWITI: (Foreign language spoken)

LUDDEN: It's more difficult than ever to come up with the school fees, she says. My daughter used to sell oranges and mangos. Now she has to carry a baby on her back.


LUDDEN: An hour away, another farming village, Sandrack. Two dozen girls are squeezed into a tiny community hall. They dance in a circle, taking turns in the center.


LUDDEN: This is a key part of the Girls Empowerment Network. Faith Phiri says her strategy to stop child marriage starts with the girls themselves.

PHIRI: All along, the girls have been so silent. It was the communities who have been thinking for the girls. They think that marriage is good for you, girls. But our approach we're saying: Girls, what do you think?

TRINITAS MHANGO: (Foreign language spoken)

LUDDEN: Phiri's colleague, Trinitas Mhango, leads this girls' club. She asks a 17-year-old named Ruth to dream and plan: In five years, what do you want to be.

RUTH: Accountant.

MHANGO: Accountant, OK. (Foreign language spoken) Ruth wants to be an accountant. (Foreign language spoken) Woo-hoo.


LUDDEN: It may seem hokey. Saying you want to be an accountant doesn't get you there. But, in fact, the few studies done on child marriage prevention say building this kind of social network is key. With it comes skills for public speaking, negotiating, standing up for oneself even in front of the whole village.


LUDDEN: The next day, it's show time. The girls club and other young people in Sandrack are putting on their own play. This shady patch of dirt under some glycedia trees is the stage. Village leaders settle into a front row wood bench. Dozens more have come by bike and foot from miles around to see this.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)

LUDDEN: Act 1: A charming man comes to court a young girl. Her parents are thrilled when he offers a backpack bursting with money.


LUDDEN: The knot is tied. The girl drops out of school. But when she goes to sell her new husband's vegetables at market...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: (Foreign language spoken)

LUDDEN: Her math skills fall short. The audience hoots as she sells for too little. The husband is not happy.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)


LUDDEN: The message seems clear. But getting it across can be tough.

EMANUEL MANDAM: (Through translator) At first, we were thinking it's a matter of wasting our time.

LUDDEN: Emanuel Mandam is a so-called headman in Chitera, where we met the young mothers. He didn't like the idea of ending child marriage at all.

MANDAM: (Through translator) Marriage - early marriage to us, it was a weapon for reducing poverty in our community.

LUDDEN: A weapon for reducing poverty, he says, because the girl's husband may bring the family money. At the least, hers is one less mouth to feed. But after the village girls presented their grievances, Mandam says he came around.

MANDAM: (Through translator) Education can make somebody to prosper, maybe for my daughter to do better in the future.

LUDDEN: Under Malawi law, a girl can marry at just about any age with parental consent. But last summer, fellow headman Roben Ndrama says Chitera passed its own legal age of marriage.

ROBEN NDRAMA: It's 21 years, is it?

LUDDEN: Yes, it's 21. He says all the village girls should go to college - pretty ambitious. To minimize distractions, there's a new 6 p.m. curfew for young people. And there's been a change back at that local movie house, a thatched hut with an old TV and videotape machine.


LUDDEN: OK, this horror flick is completely inappropriate for the kids lining wooden benches to see it. But they used to show porn.


LUDDEN: By far the biggest change: A steep penalty if parents marry off a daughter before age 21.

NDRAMA: (Foreign language spoken)

LUDDEN: Ndrama says, they have to give five goats to the chief and eight chickens to the village headmen. In a more humiliating measure, some parents have been made to scrub clean the local health center. Seriously.

NDRAMA: (Foreign language spoken) true.

LUDDEN: Now, do they accept this or they must get awfully mad at you?

NDRAMA: (Foreign language spoken)

LUDDEN: It's worked, he says. This year there have been no early marriages. Still, this is one village in a country the size of Pennsylvania. Faith Phiri faces heavy pushback as she tries to change centuries of thinking. But she hopes new attitudes are sinking in, and spreading, village by village, girl by girl. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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