The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
When sharing good and bad news, most people tend to start with the bad news first, and therefore I will start with the reverse – with the ugly truth – when it comes to child marriage.
The underlying reason for the existence of such a cruel practice is to overcome issues of poverty, at the expense of the education rights and the sexual and reproductive health rights of the girl child. But in this day and age, where girls are legally allowed to be educated in most regions of the world, there has to be an alternative. It is fundamentally an economic issue, and therefore the money can be found elsewhere, outside of however many cows a girl is worth/her bride price.
Child brides are at a very high risk of suffering violence, abuse and lack of a full education as a result of their child marriages. These young girls tend to stop attending school as soon as they get married and then they are trapped in a vicious cycle of being uneducated, dependent on their often violent husbands who were strangers to them on their wedding day, and at a higher risk of having their sexual and reproductive health rights breached, and so forth. Many young girls in these forced marriages are not only forced to consummate their marriage, but are denied contraception and forced to give birth, which can lead to many complications because of their small and under-developed bodies.
If child marriage continues, EIGHT of the UN’s 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will not be met (SDGs 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 10 and 16), and although some progress has been made, there is still a long way to go to eradicate the practice. Every year, there are still about 15 million girls under the age of 18 forced into such marriages worldwide. Many of these children are not even teenagers.
In Malawi, Africa, for instance, a UN study found that more than 50 per cent of its girls were married off to adult men before the age of 18. Just recently in the news we heard about Theresa Kachindamoto (also known as the unexpected female chief of Monkey Bay/Lusumbwe), whose first act in office as a newly-appointed chief was to annul 850 child marriages. Drastic measures such as this, including having to change the law, were deemed necessary by the female chief, because although child marriage was made illegal in Malawi in 2015, many families were still encouraging it.
She had to go as far as changing the law because she knew that not everyone would agree to changing the tradition under the exception of “parental permission.” For these families, allowing their girls to marry older men was sadly their meal ticket, because they couldn’t afford to keep them. While this is one huge step taken by a single individual towards progress, the fact that such a measure had to be taken (with such a high number of cases involved) in the first place, suggests that there are many more cases to tackle.
The good news is that there are many organisations working relentlessly today to end child marriage, such as Brides Do Good, a relatively new UK-based social enterprise. The organisation appeals to brides to donate their wedding dresses to be sold online, with a significant amount of profits going towards eradicating child marriage by 2030.
The organisation becomes more empowered by working with other global charities such as Plan International (Plan UK) and Too Young to Wed. For instance, they have worked with Plan UK as a Charity Partner since inception, and handled projects in countries such as Egypt and Ethiopia to ensure safe access to quality education, which results in the empowerment of this high-risk group of girls.
Projects such as building new classrooms and basic facilities, providing teacher training and learning materials, running remedial classes for those children that are behind, supporting mothers in school as mentors and champions of education, training teachers specifically to help support vulnerable girls, and boosting child protection systems in schools.
One the organisation’s projects is also part of a larger programme funded by the European Union in Ethiopia and Somalia, meaning that every £1 raised by Brides Do Good and other partners will be matched by £4.60 from the EU. These numbers are encouraging, as it costs just $300 for a girl to complete a year of secondary school, and the impact will be a reduction in the number of child marriages and fewer cases of gender-based violence, meaning that the situation can be made far less ugly.
Louise Roe: A Guardian Angel “Bride Donor”
“I must admit, the final moment of handing over my dress gave me a little twinge of sadness…but that feeling soon vanished. If donating your wedding dress means one, two or even three underprivileged girls can complete an entire year of secondary school…that’s better than any wedding gift I can think of.”
Louise is just one example of a “bride donor” who has contributed to the cause of getting girls out of the vicious cycle of early marriage, and instead, educated. Her dress was created by Pronovias, the Spanish, family-owned brand and it took their Atelier over 850 hours to custom-make it from scratch. Indeed, Louise felt like a princess in her perfectly fitted magical dress with its long train and capelet and she found that parting with her “painstakingly hand-crafted [dress] was harder than [she’d] expected”. All the same, she went for it, donated her wedding gown in 2017, and then it went on to sell at Brides Do Good’s Bicester Village pop up.
The re-sale of her dress has had a direct impact – even in Nigeria. For instance, the funds were in part used within their Nigeria project in northern Nigeria, a high-risk region for child marriage. Proceeds from the sale of Louise’s gown and others also contributed to funding 40 educational and vocational scholarships that supported severely affected girls within their own communities. The Louise Roe story possibly also made a media & PR impact because since then, Pronovias have joined Brides Do Good in their mission as a Brand Partner, and recently donated over 100 new dresses to help fund their work with Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia. This is powerful.
It is important to note, that even though dowry provision and poverty is a big factor, the causes for child marriage are many and complex, and not purely financial. They include cultural, social, religious as well as economic factors. The practice is not solely to be blamed on those parents needing financial gain.
Indeed, child marriage is generally sanctioned by the elders of communities that still practice it as an acceptable, if not expected, tradition – irrespective of dowry. A child marriage survivor recently shed light of this point at the Women Deliver conference recently: “Parents don’t marry their children young because they hate them or are knowingly harming them, they marry them off because they love them, they think it is in their best interest, that they are protecting them.” This is unfortunately why child marriage is such a complex thing to tackle – we have to try and change socio-cultural norms from the grassroots up, which is why we invest so heavily in community-led programmes.
Many privileged women with pre-loved wedding dresses are able to support, and therefore can have an impact on this very vulnerable group of young girls. Support works both ways. Either: 1.) Brides donating their wedding dress; or 2.) Brides-to-be purchasing their wedding dress from Brides Do Good’s website or pop up events. If you have been moved and inspired by these stories, and would like to learn more, including the impact being made, please visit the organisations’ websites:
www.bridesdogood.org | www.plan-uk.org |