Let Me Be A Girl, Not A Bride

By Shreya Manna. Shreya, 16, lives in Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Imagine if your parents mentioned marriage to you when you barely knew what marriage meant. Imagine if they called you a burden, told you to forget school, tore you apart from your family and allowed a man three times your age to lay his hands on you. Like a lamb to the slaughter, you’re dolled up with henna, forced into wedding clothes and into rituals believed to bring “joy” in married life. But the reality? A lifetime shackled to the path of untold anguish, trauma and slavery.

This is the plight of the girl who is forced into marriage when she is under the age of 18; the devastating plight of potentially 142 million girls in the next decade, as per the data provided by the NGO Girls Not Brides. Our voices are their only hope for change.

It starts when a little boy grows up seeing every male around him using women as a pawn for their aims. He grows up to think that girls are pathetic creatures, only good for physical pleasure and domestic slavery. While he was being spoilt with praise, getting an education and gaining monetary freedom, his sisters were kept ignorant, subjugated. Inevitably, this boy begins to think it is a man’s right to have a woman under his feet. He becomes corrupted enough to look into the innocent eyes of a girl and see money. Men in these societies often take drugs and engage in criminal activities. When debts and rivalries result from their carelessness or land is at stake, they marry their daughters off to settle their debts. And what are their daughters to the groom? Nothing more than an untrained prostitute. A slave for free. An income, when she is forced to offer money or property as dowry to greedy in-laws. How can we allow men to forsake their responsibility towards their daughters? How can we allow men to treat the daughters of India like a possession, selling them to absolve their crimes? How can we let married men force the brunt of their mental torment onto their wives, by abusing them mentally and physically? We must uproot this prejudiced mindset now, or our sisters will be trapped in this cycle, thinking women deserve this fate.

We must break this cycle now, for our sisters who fight the clutches of domestic abuse in child marriage; for sisters, like Nujood Ali in Yemen, married at nine – to a man in his thirties. Overnight, she was miles from home, sleeping on a mat on the floor. Overnight, the man who promised “not to touch her” assaulted her savagely; her cries and screams went unanswered. She lost consciousness, but the horror repeated every day. Her husband hit her – first with his hands, then with a stick – yet her in-laws goaded: “Hit her even harder”. Rural communities cast a blind eye to this suffering, claiming it is the only way to stop girls from facing trafficking, prostitution or rape. Instead of telling boys to respect women, they say they are “protecting girls” by plunging them from one evil into another. Yet none of these is stopped by child marriage; instead, this fans the flames of the fire that is sexism, an appalling breach of human rights. If girls like Nujood survive, they may get life-threatening diseases like HIV or AIDs, or be rendered pathetic by damaged organs from conceiving and giving birth to too many children before they are physically or mentally ready. And perhaps the worst knowledge we possess is the fact that child marriage leads to preventable deaths. Imagine 350 airplanes full of people crashing to the ground: this is how many young brides we lose annually to pregnancy and childbirth complications, according to a study by the NGO Girls Not Brides. These girls could have been loving mothers, wives, engineers or teachers enhancing the world, but they now lie dead, cheated of their potential.

Moreover, imagine if these physical encounters were never the end of your suffering but the start of tremendous mental trauma. Where marriage should be a vow of mutual love, for these girls it is a prison sentence wherein they feel worthless. Deserted. Ludicrously crippled. At the most tender age, you are ripped away from your parents and faced with brutal in-laws. They humiliate and insult you constantly, force you to slave at housework all day. Girls suffer marital rape with no idea what is happening to them. Unavoidably, they are forced to look after children while children themselves, suffering depression and helplessness, brainwashed to treat their daughters in the same way they were. How can our conscience allow those who cause such fear and shock for innocent little girls to go unpunished?

From another angle, abuse like this can only breed more abuse because child marriage becomes an impediment in a girl’s path to education, and she becomes too weak to stand up against her husband. Rural communities say that there is no need for a girl to be educated because she will get married, and only need to please her husband. Yet, think, if a girl had a book and a pencil, she could lift her family out of this inter-generational cycle of poverty and inhumanity. She could become aware of contraception and stop these practices from overburdening the population. She could stop more parents from being forced to discriminate whom to educate from many children. She could protect her well-being without the crutch of a husband, defend herself against manipulation. Hundreds of girls, given this empowerment, could become world-changing activists like Malala Yousafzai, helping India blossom economically and socially. Now, such an empowerment would be unbearable to the prejudiced husband, who wants a wife who stays underfoot. How can we fuel such a patriarchal illness towards women? Curb child marriage and open the door to education – only then can girls cure this illness themselves, by proving their worth to themselves and to the world.

Imagine if a girl on her wedding day had henna adorning her hands and knows that she has grown. She has learnt. She has married when she wanted. Imagine if, like a beautiful henna design takes time to create and imprint on the hand, a girl took the time to blossom as an individual. Imagine if we lived in a world without child marriage, a world that embraced prosperity, security and well-being for our sisters, a world that would grow more wonderful every day like the swirls of henna on a bride’s hands.

I am a girl, and I am blessed to have a family that let me embrace these rights. Maybe, like me, you realize the blessing you have been given, and our sisters in child marriages denied.

Please, I beseech you, share the blessing.

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