My hometown brings a lot of great memories and stimulates an irresistible urge for an adventure. I decided cycle on our old “hybrid” ram-shackled bicycle which can potentially attract all possible tickets and fines from the police, a Frankenstein of my brother’s reusing creativity. It’s a fusion of all the bicycles we ever had plus a few adopted parts. I packed my water bottle, camera and thick book then road to a nearby dam just outside the city.
As I came closer to the dam I met a lovely young woman in her late teens. She was carrying a dish full of laundry on her head with a baby on her back and two infants the younger tagging on her skirt .The oldest of about five years of age was chatting away leading the young family to a nearby farming settlement. At the dam more young women were doing laundry with a few infants running around. Were they teen parents? Men were fishing and some bathing or swimming on the opposite side of the dam. My intention was to enjoy the beautiful sounds of nature in a tranquil environment but my mind could not ignore what i was seeing. Such situations make me subconsciously introspect and consider my privilege and how i can fight any prejudice and stereotypes I might harbor.
I am against marrying off adolescent girls a practice commonly termed child marriages.it is a gross violation of the affected child’s rights and is form of sexual abuse. I have used any opportunity possible to speak out against it. Girls are the main victims of such a practice usually being married off to older men. It is a manifestation of a deep rooted infirmity in our society;poverty.
My sisters had the privilege of deciding when to get married partly because of their relatively well provided for backgrounds. Our parents considered education to be a right and priority and could afford to send us to school. School occupied at least more than sixteen years of our lives. After primary and secondary school the focus was on career or skills development for them to achieve a certain level of independence. Marriage was not deemed as the way out .There was no pressure from their respective parents to marry them off because the parents could provide for them. The same applied to most of my friends. They come from relatively privileged backgrounds and could afford to dream. However we seem not to realize how our privilege has cushioned us from some social problems.
I used to consider victims of child marriages to be from ignorant backgrounds because I could never think of my parents ever doing that to my sister. I always viewed such victims with pitiful eyes and had immense anger at their families. All I had was just a superficial assumption of their predicament. A glimpse of what seemed to be a victim’s life made me reconsider my ignorant uninformed prejudiced view. It was clear their quality of life was below most urban settlements ironically just a stone throw away. Each day their struggle was to make ends meet and education was a luxury with the daily priority being getting food on the table. The relatively more privileged envied males in their community could easily exploit such girls with a few gifts to the family which because of need were heartily welcome. The cycle of poverty continued.
Some girls deprived of an education are groomed to be brides and as soon a suitor comes along the family will accept the bride price for that temporary provision and relief. The real enemy here is poverty and the inequality it brings. It is the common thing you find in countries and communities with high rates of child marriages. We welcome recent developments in law and policy to fight such an evil practice but we know our country is not immune from partial law enforcement and corruption. This cannot guarantee protection of our girls from exploitation because many cases can still go unreported. What happens after arresting the parents or guardians ? Does it improve the socio-economic status of the family that pushed them to marry off their child? We need to actively fight poverty because this will address a lot of social problems stemming from it. It is sad how inequalities in our societies are worsening each day with the usually political elite getting richer and the poor masses, poorer.
Patriarchy is another important issue that needs to be focused on in curbing exploitation of the girl child because of its role in promoting gender related inequalities. Unfortunately extreme forms of patriarchy, religion and culture are dominant in poorer communities because of reduced access to education and information. Unequal access to resources, poor governance and other factors that contribute to poverty also contribute to exploitation of the girl child.
Teenage pregnancies need to be addressed. The girl child has to be informed and empowered. We need to write a new gender story for the contemporary dynamic society. I cherish and embrace progressive elements of our culture but we have to let go of retrogressive exploitative practices. This cannot be achieved in our air conditioned well lit and catered for offices or even behind our laptops and smart phone screens. We need to be part of the community and involve ourselves in participatory action research. Our privilege makes us fall in a different but equally retrogressive form of ignorance, one we constantly accuse the developed world of when they talk of developing countries.