[WOMENSENEWS]–"They want to force me into an arranged marriage," my 19-year-old- cousin Fatou texts me.
I am from the Ivory Coast, an African country. I moved to the United States in 2013 but still have contact with my family back home.
"Who wants to marry you against your will?" I asked. She responded that it was a guy in the family who was nearly 10 years older than her.
In my country the legal age to get married is 18 but cultural beliefs prevail here. Girls Not Brides reports that the north and west part of the country have the highest rates of child marriage, each with more than 50 percent of girls married before the age of 18. My cousin may seem like she is too old to be a "child" bride but she doesn’t have the same opportunities to strike out on her own as a 19-year-old does here. This forced marriage is just as egregious to me as what younger teens are going through.
When I called my cousin for more information she said her mother had been planning this since the death of her father two years ago. Her mother argued that she wasn’t able to take care of Fatou and her siblings so she wanted her to marry a guy who could take care of her. Fatou, just like her two oldest sisters, is being forced into an arranged marriage and her younger sister is certainly the next in line. Fatou’s parting words to me were "Awa, I am so depressed right now, I am thinking about running away."
Growing up in a world where gender equality is questionable, these words which I have translated from my cousin are cries for help. Fatou is one of thousands of girls in the world who get married without their consent. She is 19, however some girls get married much younger than that. Forty-three percent of girls are married off before their 18th birthday, 17 percent are married before they turn 15, according to UNICEF. Early marriage prevents girls from getting an education because husbands do not let their wives go to school.
"Child marriage often means the end of education for girls," Girls Not Brides reports. "It is closely linked to girls dropping out of school, denying children their right to the education they need for their personal development, their preparation for adulthood and their ability to contribute to their family and community." Children from illiterate mothers are more likely to be illiterate themselves and denied opportunities of employment. These children are also likely to fall into child marriage just like their mothers were. Girls Not Brides found that 48 percent of women aged 20-24 with no education and 27 percent with primary education were married or in a union at age 18, compared to only 9 percent of women with secondary education or higher. Fatou only has a primary education since her parents could not afford to pay for the rest of her education.
Girls Not Brides also asserts that child brides have less access to reproductive education, so they are vulnerable to contracting HIV and STDs, and they are more likely to experience domestic abuse. Girls younger than 16 are more likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth. "When a mother is under 20, her child is 50 percent more likely to be stillborn or die within its first weeks of life than a baby born to an older mother," Girls Not Bride found. The rate of babies who died at birth from mothers under the age of 20 is higher than for children born to older mothers.
All these girls need a good education. With an education these girls will know their rights, learn how to stand up for themselves and say no to things that do not benefit them. With an education, these girls can raise awareness in their different families and communities about the atrocities of a forced marriage. Educating a girl will lower the rate of child marriage and also help her break out of the poverty cycle.
Recently a few friends I made at a summer program joined forces to raise money for the cause. Even though we lived in Ghana, the United States, Israel, Canada and Pakistan we communicated daily on our efforts. My friends organized booths with games at their school fairs to help raise money. I used this opportunity to raise awareness by speaking to my family. The question was how to convince them to stop something that they were born following? For Fatou’s mother, this is not a forced marriage but the actions of a mother looking out for her daughter. My mother said that Fatou never spoke out about not wanting to marry the man. This is what happens to uneducated girls – they tend to be scared to speak up for themselves. What upset me the most is that even Fatou’s oldest sister who was married under similar circumstances did not step in and stand up for her sister.
After three months of hard work, we raised almost $500 that we donated to She’s the First, who will use the money to provide education scholarships to girls around the world. By having a free education, parents would not have to worry about paying the bills of their children’s education and girls will be informed of their human rights at school.
By this summer, Fatou will be married to someone she does not love. She may never know what it is like to marry the love of your life and also will not be able to pursue an education. I am angry for not being able to convince her mother that this is not a solution for her. I feel helpless for not being able to stop this from happening.