Success Stories

Wedding Crashers Shine a Spotlight on Child Marriage

Wedding Crashers Reveal Child Marriage in India

It was late afternoon when 14-year-old Reshma was getting ready for her wedding at a beauty parlor in the Old City of Hyderabad. Reshma was one of 33 brides, all under the age of 18, to be married that night in an illegal ceremony at 3 a.m.

Reshma thought marriage was her only option until she met the girls of Global Fund for Women grantee partner, Shaheen, at the beauty parlor. The girls, all survivors of forced marriages, search beauty parlors in the Old City, looking for others just like Reshma who are preparing for weddings they don’t want. Shaheen finds out where the marriage is taking place and organizes what they call “sting operations” – going in a group, with video cameras and journalists, to stop the wedding. They expose the wedding guests: religious leaders and police who receive bribes for turning a blind eye to the law, along with family members and of course, the groom. The group also started a hotline for child brides to call when they need help stopping a forced marriage.

At the ceremony, Reshma had the women power of Shaheen behind her to refuse her marriage. And it worked. After 18, she married a man of her choice and chose when to have her two children.

Speak Up!


Fill in the blank: I will marry when _______

Although the legal age for marriage in India is 18 for girls and 21 for boys, its 24 million underage child brides constitute nearly half of all child brides in the world. Shaheen changes this abysmal stat by working in the Old City, where two-thirds of residents live below the poverty line. They operate in 20 slums, with marginalized communities of Muslims and Dalits. According to Shaheen’s founder, Jameela Nishat, women in the Old City are not allowed to look men in the eye, and cannot attend local counsel meetings. The few public schools don’t have proper facilities and only serve girls up to age eight. Hospitals are few and far between.

Wealthy men from both inside and outside India take advantage of such rampant poverty by offering cash to parents if they sign temporary marriage contracts. They marry the girl, stay in Hyderabad for a brief period during which time they rape and abuse her, and then leave town and their bride behind. According to Jameela it is common for girls to be forced to marry multiple times – she knows one girl who has been married and divorced 17 times before the age of 16.

Girls between the ages of 10 and 18 who escape the abuse and rape in a forced marriage, come to Shaheen for shelter, education, and healthcare. Determined to stop the practice of child marriage, the women and girls of Shaheen document every sting operation and bring the names of those involved to the police, even though, according to Jameela, police don’t have a good track record of enforcing the minimum age of marriage law. And if the marriages happen within Muslim communities, they claim it’s out of their jurisdiction. Despite arguments made to justify the practice of child marriage, including religious and cultural beliefs and deep-rooted traditions, child marriage is a form of violence. Child marriage is rape and robs a girl of her future; it forces her to drop out of school and give birth when her body is not ready.

“We can’t do anything unless we have stringent laws, which is what we’re working on,” said Jameela, who collaborates with other NGOs and lawyers to change the minimum age of marriage to 18 instead of “maturation” in Muslim law.

In addition to crashing weddings, Shaheen works with survivors of rape and incest. In India, a woman is raped every 20 minutes and 98 percent of reported rapes name parents, relatives and neighbors as the perpetrators. After a girl's husband cut her nose off when she was 8 months pregnant, neighbors took her to the hospital to deliver the baby. She came to Shaheen to heal and now walks at night with other survivors, door-to-door, talking to families about ways to stop the cycle of violence.

While the women and girls of Shaheen are making progress, we still have a long road ahead. India, which has more child brides than any nation in the world, decided not to co-sponsor a United Nations initiative to end child marriage.

Support groups like Shaheen so they can hold their governments accountable and end child marriage. Donate today!

 

Meenu's True Story of Girl Power in India

Safe World for Girls

Meenu Rawat writes her own not-so-comic book with a real girl hero. Flip through the pages of her graphic novella to find out how grantee partner, Feminist Approach to Technology, uses the power of tech to empower girls to stand up against violence in Delhi. Download Meenu's graphic novella »

Created by Meenu Rawat and Lydia Holden. Illustrated by Izzie Klingels, designed by Daniel Hawkins, and edited by Megan Shank.

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Girls in Malawi Will Marry When They Want

Girls in Malawi play for keeps

When she isn’t studying at the University of Malawi, 17-year-old Memory is shooting videos and snapping photographs of girls talking about their dreams for the future.

When Memory was 14, her 12-year-old sister got pregnant. After leaving an abusive husband, it was her mother’s job to keep the two girls safe and healthy in their rural community in the Chiradzulu District of southern Malawi.

"In a village where you see one of [the girls] getting pregnant, especially the young one, you feel a lot of pressure. People asking ‘what about you?’ Everyone viewed my mother as a mother who does not take care of her children, which was not true. I had to be different. I didn’t’ want to be like my little sister, but I knew that other girls were going through what [she] was going through."

GENET Wants To Hear From You!


Fill in the blank: I will marry when _______

The Situation for Girls

Extreme poverty in Malawi causes many families to invest their money and time in the boy because he is assumed to have the greatest chance of financially supporting the family when he gets older. Girls on the other hand are viewed as financial burdens and failures. They grow up with low self-esteem, dependent on men for their survival; the best way a girl can serve her family is to get married, ideally to a wealthy man. So it’s no surprise that one out of every two girls in Malawi will be married by her 18th birthday – one of the highest rates of forced marriage in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Memory was determined to buck the stats; that’s when she heard about Girls Empowerment Network-Malawi (GENET). She became a volunteer in the girl empowerment program, leading discussions and producing documentaries to change the conversation about the value of girls. GENET’s approach to ending child marriage is completely girl-centered. Whatever they do, from the way the organization is staffed, to how it advocates for laws to protect girls from early marriage, girls are front and center. They build the leadership skills necessary to change the situation for themselves and others.

"GENET has made me strong and so wise about my decisions," said Memory. "It has removed the fear I had to explore the opportunities in life. Little girls look up to me as a role model and say, 'I want to be like you.'"

Eyes on the Prize

Memory isn’t GENET’s only fan. Local and national leaders are hailing Chitera in Chiradzulu District as a model community. School enrollment among girls has increased by over 50 percent since 2011, just three years after GENET received its first Global Fund for Women grant. Cases of child marriage are few and far between, and girls are speaking up when their rights are being violated.

Malawian law stipulates that girls can legally marry with parental consent at 15, but girls like Memory know firsthand, the pitfalls of early marriage. Child brides are almost always married to older men, and lack the standing to negotiate sex or birth control. Many get pregnant soon after marriage, when their bodies are too underdeveloped or too small to handle it. Girls younger than 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s, according to the International Center for Research on Women.

GENET has its eyes on the big prize: reforming the minimum marriage-age law. They organized a writing contest in 10 schools, asking girls about their feelings on child marriage. They hosted photo workshops where girls learned to tell their stories through art. The 2,200 responses turned into “I Will Marry When I Want To,” a publication used in meetings with members of parliament and other decision makers.

Memory’s younger sister is now a mother of two and admires her as an example of girl empowerment and success.

"It has been such a long journey, and I never thought I would be where I am [today]. It’s because of GENET that I can say 'I’m here now!'" said Memory.

Learn more about how GENET is ending child marriage in Malawi. Download the case study »

 

What It Takes to End FGM

Tumndo ne Leel

By Lydia Holden, Communications Lead for Grassroots Girls Initiative. Photo credit: Lydia Holden

Bouncing around in the back seat of the car, we descend potholed switchbacks into a dust bowl valley ravaged by commercial mining. Dr. Susan Chebet, founder of the grassroots organization Tumndo ne Leel, explains over the roar of dump truck drivers grinding the worn gears as they ascend, why this little village matters so much in her fight against female circumcision, also referred to as female genital mutilation (FGM).

“This area was a last bastion for female circumcision,” says Dr. Chebet. “People from the highlands would come down here to have the ritual performed. It was critical to introduce another rite of passage in this area to stamp out FGM in Kenya.”

Help Seed the Change!

    Organic solutions are growing at Tumndo ne Leel, but more resources are needed. Dr. Susan Chebet and the girls want to know:

    What creative activities can adolescent girls engage in at the Centre for Social Transformation and Empowerment to help them learn about their sexual and reproductive health?

    Help seed the change by posting your answer on Growing Organic Solutions for Girls. Your idea will not only benefit Tumndo ne Leel, but it could be worth US$2,000 for this organization!

Dr. Chebet observed that after the government limited, and then banned FGM, it didn’t stop the practice, but instead forced it underground: “FGM would even still be practiced in the church, but they would cover up the girl’s cries by singing hymns.” Knowing that there needed to be an alternative rite of passage to replace the traditional ceremony, Dr. Chebet wrote the curriculum “A Coming of Age Concept.” Girls are given lessons in empowerment, self-esteem, morals and hygiene, incorporating effective traditional lessons with modern ways of thinking. Girls still learn the important lessons passed down from generations of women, but replace the physical act of cutting with a graduation into young womanhood ceremony. “We are circumcising our hearts and minds, not our bodies,” says Dr. Chebet.

We arrive at the basin of the valley and slowly drive through the dry village, which has experienced total crop failure for the last two years, to the school. “Girls in this area have limited access to education—very limited compared to boys,” says Dr. Chebet. “When girls turn 12, the family expects them to provide labor for the family and domestic responsibilities take over. That’s when FGM usually happens. Early marriage, for girls about 16 years old, and pregnancy are other factors that keep girls from finishing school. Those who support girls’ education are ostracized.”

Dr. Chebet and I are invited into one of the classrooms where a group of girls are waiting to share their stories with me. In the upper primary there are 45 girls; only four girls remain in the freshman year high school class. I ask the girls about the Tumndo ne Leel program and the recently opened Centre for Social Transformation and Empowerment, where women and girls gather for the trainings and find support.

“I want to go into the Tumndo program because my life is very hard and they will help,” says Sandra Cheruiyot, 15. “The program can assist me in the importance of education and how to stay a girl and not follow men around. If you get pregnant it is the end of education. Or the parents may chase a pregnant girl away from the home. Tumndo will help us know our bodies and stay healthy.”

We drive back across the river, that trickles but no longer flows, to visit the Centre for Social Transformation and Empowerment. There a group of women show me the Centre and give me a tour of the grounds—where they are planning to grow mangoes, build a fish farm, garden and keep bees to earn money for their girls to stay in school. They hope to add an office to the building and a library with computers as a safe space for girls to go after school.

“This is a model that has replaced FGM without force or coercion and communities are embracing it themselves and have turned it into a new tradition,” says Dr. Chebet as we slowly drive up and out of the valley. “The women are looking toward a modern future and use the Centre to continue to educate each other, their girls and the community.”

Learn more about what women's groups are doing to end FGM. Read a case study about The Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children »

 

Girls in Mexico Say No to Machismo

Girls in Mexico Say 'No More Nips'

By Lydia Holden, Communications Lead for Grassroots Girls Initiative. Photo credit: Lydia Holden

Frida Kahlo’s house, now a museum, pops with periwinkle blue, neon yellow and orange marigold. Paintings, traditional Mexican peasant attire and remnants from Frida’s many illness and accidents fill the rooms. Visitors are treated to equal measures of joy, pain, life and death—themes that I see embraced throughout Mexico City. Viewing Frida’s paintings beside her husband’s, Diego Rivera, I’m reminded of their tumultuous relationship and specifically of Friday’s painting “A Few Small Nips,” that was produced during a profound time of sorrow following the revelation that Diego was carrying on an affair with Frida’s sister. The painting illustrates a newspaper article about a man who stabbed his girlfriend 20 times on a cot in a fit of jealousy. When interviewed later, the man protested his innocence, saying, “But I only gave her a few small nips.” The painting is one of Frida’s bloodiest, frankly displaying the spectrum of violence women suffer in Mexican society from the continual “small nips” that leave women weakened to murder.

“If you are a girl in Mexico City you are always finding men yelling at you and sexually harassing you in the street and subway,” says Gloria legorreta Navarro, 23, as we chat on the top floor of the Elige office. “It is a power thing: They want to show we can’t protect ourselves from them.”

Help Seed the Change!

Organic solutions are growing at Elige, but more resources are needed. Dirce and the girls of Elige want to know:

What are some creative ways that girls can stay safe and protect themselves when participating in political protests?

Help seed the change by posting your answer on Growing Organic Solutions for Girls. Your idea will not only benefit Elige, but it could be worth US$2,000 for this organization!

Founded in 1996 by a group of young feminists, Elige seeks to empower youth through the promotion and defense of reproductive and sexual rights in Mexico. Elige knows their peer training activities have an impact on the lives of young women, but they also strive to move these issues forward to have a sustainable impact on politics and the wider community. During a recent six-month training, 25 young women, ages 16-27, participated in weekly workshops to understand the historic background of the feminist movement in Mexico and the world and were trained as leaders to champion campaigns decrying violence against women and other political initiatives.

Dirce Navarrete Perez, 23, sees Mexican women as having two main problems: “She should stay at home and she should not be allowed to participate politically.” While Dirce’s parents have always encouraged her education and support her studies in university, they were less enthused about her foray into feminist politics. “Some of my family members were persecuted and harassed in the past for their political views,” explains Dirce. “And since I am young and a woman and these political activities involve me being in public, they worry.”

Undeterred, Dirce completed the Elige training and is now working with the non-profit on a project about the criminalization of women in political participation. “In December, when the new President of Mexico took office, there were protests and social struggles stopped by the police. There were many instances of police harassment and violence and being taken to jail without cause, which is a violation of human rights,” Dirce explains. “And in this process women were the most vulnerable because of the added sexual abuse and harassment that happens at the hands of the police and in the jails. Women are hardly participating in these political protests and when they do they are being detained, assaulted and labeled as criminals.”

To address this problem, Dirce and others at Elige are creating a group of objective observers to follow the protests and record how young women are being treated during the protests, in jail and how they are represented in the media. The purpose, Dirce tells me, is to see how the government is criminalizing the process with a feminist perspective and to develop knowledge and recommendations on how young women can safely participate in political protests.

“Before Elige I hadn’t had the chance of meeting young people like me with a feminist perspective. Elige reinforced that my thinking wasn’t wrong and I wasn’t the only person who thought this way,” says Dirce. “Elige is very important because we are thinking beyond theory and implementing our ideas in the community.”

Read more about how Elige grows organic solutions for girls»

 
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