Three-year-old Sunam, wears her engagement outfit and holds hands with her fiance, her 7-year-old cousin, Nieem, in Kabul, Afghanistan, July 2007. (AP Photo/Farzana Wahidy)
Rajani was a “midnight bride,” in the rugged Indian desert state of Rajastan: one of many who are too young to marry legally, at 18, but are wedded in secret, in late night village ceremonies. Only five, she toddled to her wedding in a pink t-shirt and plastic sun glasses. She had never met her husband-to-be, who was 10.
Her story, reported by Cynthia Gorney in National Geographic, is not unusual in the tragic world of child brides, who may be married off to cancel family debts, solidify clan relationships, rid a poor family of an unwanted mouth to feed or avoid a daughter’s “dishonor” from male attentions as she reaches puberty.
The sorry practise is highlighted in Ottawa this week at a photo exhibition to help support young girls who are forcibly married -- and save an estimated 142 million others from meeting the same fate over the next decade.
Presented at Carleton University’s Art Gallery, it was opened on Tuesday by Foreign Minister John Baird and Status of Women Minister Rona Ambrose. The travelling exhibition, launched in 2012 by the UN’s population fund and the photo agency VII, was sponsored in Canada by the government, the university and UNFPA.
Photographed by Stephanie Sinclair and Jessica Dimmock, it features award-winning images that show the horrifying reality of the daily lives of girls whose childhoods are stolen and whose futures are held captive by poverty, custom and family control.
Many are taken from school before they can read and write, isolated from their friends and families and forced into sex and childbirth at ages when both can endanger their lives. Those who survive often live in near-slavery, dying prematurely from exhaustion and preventable diseases.
The statistics are daunting.
According to the World Health Organization, about 39,000 under age girls are married every day. At current levels, that’s more than 14 million a year. And, says Rachel Vogelstein of the Council on Foreign Relations, the author of a study released this month on ending child marriage, of the 140 million or more who will marry before the age of 18, 50 million will be younger than 15.
Although India accounts for 40 per cent of known child brides, the tradition is pervasive in South Asia, Sub Saharan Africa – as well as parts of Latin America and the Middle East, Vogelstein says in her report. The top five rates of child marriage are in Niger, Chad, Central African Republic, Bangladesh and Guinea, where more than 60 per cent of brides are younger than 18.
“The practise of child marriage is a violation of human rights,” says Vogelstein. “Every day girls around the world are forced to leave their families, marry against their will, endure sexual and physical abuse, and bear children while still in childhood themselves.”
Although marriage of girls under 18 is illegal in 158 countries, those that put little value on female lives often turn a blind eye.
Occasionally, girls manage to escape -- like 10-year-old Nujood Ali of Yemen, who became world famous by turning up in a city courthouse and announcing that she wanted a divorce. Her success encouraged others, and the liberated youngsters won public applause, though five years later Nujood is still battling for her rights.
Most are not so lucky.
The struggle to end child marriage depends on ensuring that girls are educated and have opportunities to earn a living. And above all, countries must attack the root causes that devalue the lives of girls and women from cradle to grave.
Olivia Ward has covered conflicts, human rights and politics from the former Soviet Union to South Asia and the Middle East. An Emmy-winning film, The Selling of Innocents, was based on her reporting on trafficking of girls in India.