The discussion titled, “The Impact of Early and Forced Marriage on Rural Girls,” which was one of the events organized as part of the 56th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, was scheduled to begin at 12:30pm. However, attendees ended their lunches early in order to rush back to the conference room in the United Nation’s Church Center to reserve a seat. As the seats quickly filled, their urgency was then applied to the few open spots on the floor, as everyone searched for a comfortable place from which they could actively participate in the panel discussion. This panel, brought together by Plan International, provided the audiences with a wide range of viewpoints. These points were surrounding the topic of early, forced marriage and other social ills that are attached to this practice, which unfortunately is still a norm in certain societies. In our western, American reality, the idea of early, forced marriage is a phenomenon. This discussion was valuable because it is one resource that helps to overcome the awareness void. This panel consisted of some extremely intelligent women, but its youngest members provided the audience with the panel’s most candid words of empowerment. These two young women are Fatmata, 17 year-old from Sierra Leone, and Maryam, a young lady from Pakistan. These young ladies were a vital part of the conversation because it gave the other panelists and the audience an opportunity to speak with the youth, instead of just talking about them without accounting for their perspective.
According to the panel, countries like Sierra Leone and Pakistan have rooted traditions, customs, and necessities that support the practice of early forced marriage. Families, primarily the poorest families, felt that a husband could provide their daughters with financial security and safety. Parents saw early marriage as a way for daughters to give back to their families because these potential husbands would pay parents or work for parents in order to earn a young girl’s hand in marriage regardless of her consent or willingness to engage in that practice. According to Fatmata and Maryam, girls are seen as a commodity that can be traded between families. These practices are prevalent in rural, remote communities, where the presence of government and civil society resources are either limited or nonexistent. According to the panelists, early, forced marriages often lead to acts of violence against these girls by their husbands or the family of their husbands. These girls are at risk to early pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases because they are not old enough to make decisions about their sexuality and body. The current rates of maternal childbirth deaths resulting from early, forced marriage stand at unacceptable levels.
According to a panelist from Finland, “0 is the only acceptable number when it comes to early, forced marriages.” The panelists highlighted several goals that need to be met in order to decrease and eventually eliminate the practice of early, forced marriages. Legislation must be established in all countries that set 18 as the age when both girls and boys can marry. This legislative law must have the support of both the government and civil society. Otherwise, opponents will try to limit its effectiveness by continuing to implement certain traditions and customs. Panelists also stated that authorities need to ensure that children are properly registered at birth because girls are not often registered. Since girls are not registered at the birth, their families can marry them off under the guise that they are older. Early, forced marriages are a reality that many girls face in today’s world. In order to restore rights to these young girls and change their realities, the global community must join with and motivate local leaders to provide alternatives to these families. In addition, legal safeguards must be established against this terrible practice.
Fatmata, 17 year-old from Sierra Leone