Hunger brides

Zali, age 12, was forced to marry an older man

This piece was written by Erin Kennedy, advocacy technical adviser for CARE’s Gender and Empowerment Unit

“Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage.” Frank Sinatra’s famous refrain didn’t invent the notion that marital bliss is based on a deep and mutual emotional bond, but Americans have heard the words so many times over the decades on TV, in movies and at weddings that “love and marriage” are indelibly linked in the American consciousness. Ask a group of friends to complete the phrase “Love and [blank]” to see what I mean. Google the words, and you’ll get 304 million results.

If you played the same word association game in another part of the world, however, you’re likely to get a different result. For the people living through and responding to the enormous food crisis in West Africa’s Sahel region, two words that might fit together better than love and marriage are hunger and marriage.

In Niger, where even during the best of times one in three girls is married by the time she is 15, this year’s food emergency has prompted a surge of what some now call “drought-” or “hunger brides.” A chilling Associated Press story in September documented this grim phenomenon. In it, UNICEF’s chief child protection officer in Niger says “Families are using child marriage, as an alternative, as a survival strategy to food insecurity.” When a girl is married, she goes to live with her husband and his family. Marrying off your daughter as soon as possible means one fewer mouth to feed. A photo essay accompanied the story and included a heartbreaking portrait of Zali Idy, a girl from an especially hard-hit village who was forced to marry a 23-year-old man in January. Zali was 12.

On October 11, we marked the first International Day of the Girl by joining our partners in the Girls Not Brides USA and Global Coalition to highlight and prioritize this important issue. Now, I urge all of us—from policymakers and everyday citizens—to take a stand against child marriage and make eliminating it and supporting married adolescents a US foreign policy goal. Child marriage is a practice with negative effects that ripple through entire communities and across generations: girls who marry younger stop their education sooner and decrease their earning potential as adults, perpetuating the cycle of poverty. Yet child marriage is also a practice that thrives in an environment of chronic poverty, hunger and malnutrition.

That’s why CARE and our partners are fighting child marriage by addressing the root causes of poverty. Helping people escape the cycle of drought and hunger reduces some of the economic and social pressures that encourage child marriage. The most effective weapons in the fight against child marriage could be shovels to dig irrigation ditches, a fistful of drought-tolerant seeds, and a metal lock box where people can store the money they collect in their community-led savings – measures that make families and communities more resilient in the face of disasters like droughts.

When families are more resilient to shocks – when they can respond to a drought without eroding their assets, when they can recover from a drought more quickly, when they can build back stronger – a family is less likely to view a young daughter as a burden, a mouth to feed, a means of settling a debt.

Ending child marriage requires tackling poverty and food insecurity as well as changing the way girl children are viewed and valued in their families. Education plays a big role. Parents want to do their best for their children. When they understand that forced child marriage has terrible, sometimes fatal health consequences— girls who deliver babies at 15 and younger are five times more likely to die during labor than women in their 20s— parents are less likely to push their daughters into marriage. In addition to prioritizing education, we also need to work together with community-based organizations to support efforts that empower adolescent girls with access to social and health services, as well as knowledge of their own human rights.

Earlier this year, the villagers of Checheho Kebele, Ethiopia prepared for a big wedding. Sosina Zewdu, a 14-year-old 8th grader, was to be married to a much older man. Her family bought food, drinks and prepared a dowry. Sosina didn’t realize what her family was planning for her until they took her to a clinic for a mandatory pre-marital HIV test.

Once she understood, Sosina objected. This upset everyone in her family with the exception of her father, Abera. He had been uneasy about the marriage since learning about the grim consequences of child marriage from CARE and our local partners. So when Sosina spoke up, Abera found the courage to do the same. As he told us, “If I am not going to respect my own daughter’s rights and be a model of change in my community, who will?”

Abera may not be Sinatra, but his words should be music to anyone’s ears.