This week at Media Voices we have a film by Stephanie Sinclair, Too Young to Wed, about child marriage. Be warned: this film has some shattering images. In eight years of work in Afghanistan, Yemen, Nepal and Ethiopia (partially funded by National Geographic), Sinclair documented child marriage, which affects millions of children and very young girls across the world. Outlawed in many countries, child marriage nevertheless persists. It cuts across language and religion and culture, a bizarre blind spot that renders child rape acceptable, so long as it occurs in the context of marriage. And as for the husbands, some thirty or forty years older than the bride? They’re not considered pedophiles, but bridegrooms.
Sinclair traces the baleful effects of this abusive practice on the children – an end to any prospect of further education, pregnancy at an extremely young age, grinding labor in the household and of course, repeated rape. It is not surprising that child brides have a very high rate of suicide. But what of the larger effect on the community? Child marriage occurs in communities that are desperately poor. Often it is seen as a solution for a family that has too many mouths to feed. The consequences ripple across the generations, affecting not just the individual girl, but also her children, who are far more likely to grow up in poverty, with no access to education. Female powerlessness endangers children. Child marriage causes poverty as much as it is caused by it.
So how to break this vicious cycle?
Sunita Kasera, a video volunteer with India Unheard, documents an ingenious solution in Rajasthan: make marriage cheaper. In her video, When Marriage Does Not Come at a Cost, Kasera finds that community-subsidized mass marriages obviate the need for a crushingly expensive dowry. As a result, family resources can go to the girl’s education, delaying marriage. When she eventually does get married, the vexed question of the dowry, so often a source of friction with the in-laws in a traditional wedding, is not an issue.
The quality of the education on offer matters too. In Pay Bribe, Take Education, Mukesh Rajak, a video volunteer from a Dalit family, offers a scorching indictment of government schools in Jharkand, in which teachers frequently solicit bribes from their students, or show up drunk, or don’t show up at all.
The State Department has released its annual Trafficking in Persons report. It makes for grim reading, to be sure, but a bright spot is the TIP Heroes section, featuring people who have devoted their lives to rescuing and rehabilitating trafficking victims and prosecuting the traffickers, people like Charimaya Tamang, herself a trafficking survivor, who co-founded the anti-trafficking NGO, Shakti Sumaha. You can see some of the rehabilitation work done at Shakti Sumaha in Nepal: Escaped from the Sex Trade, Unable to Go Home, featuring the story of Laxmi Bishwokarma, who was trafficked to an Indian brothel at the age of 15 by her uncle.
Ultimately, of course, the best way to prevent child marriage or trafficking is to educate girls. An American couple, Jenni and Jason Doherty, decided to invest in academically high-achieving girls, who could not afford the school fees to continue their secondary education in Kenya. In 2008, they built Daraja Academy, and they continue to live there and run the school. The Girls of Daraja is an absolutely charming film. “I want to be an independent lady,” says one of the girls. Isn’t that what we all want?
Petra Lent McCarron is an experienced television and film producer and editor. She co-produced Stolen Childhoods and Rescuing Emmanuel for Galen Films. She began her career at WNET (PBS) in New York City as an associate producer for Heritage: Civilization and the Jews. She also worked as an associate producer and stock footage researcher on Robert Moses, for WNET and JFK: A Time Remembered for Obenhaus Films and The Susskind Company.
As a film editor, Petra has worked for the New York Times Oral History Project on their film, Taste Ladies and Ink-Stained Wretches. She was a contributing editor to Stolen Childhoods, Rescuing Emmanuel and Big Guns Talk – all for Galen Films.