A young girl who, against her will, is married off by her parents to an older man. A much older man. That is the dominant picture of a child marriage. And although this does occur, it happens less often than you might think. Because usually the bride and groom are peers. And it is not the parents who coax a forced marriage, but teenagers marry because of an unplanned pregnancy. That is why Her Choice is focusing the attention on preventing teenage pregnancies – by breaking taboos and focusing on truly comprehensive sexual education.
Since 2016, The Hunger Project has been working with the Her Choice alliance to reduce child marriages. Research partner Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research (AISSR) of the University of Amsterdam (UvA) is keeping a good eye on things. Her Choice investigates why girls get married early. Whether the approach works. And where there is room for improvement. Her Choice takes stock of it in the Midline Report, midway through the five-year program.
“The Midline Report shows that girls know better what their rights are. They are really aware of the disadvantages of child marriages and express more about this. Certainly in Africa, more girls have the feeling that they themselves can decide on a possible marriage. And that is really good. But it is not enough. Because the research also shows that many child brides marry pregnant or as a teenage mother. As a single mother you are a disgrace to the family, and girls choose marriage. In the African Her Choice countries, unplanned pregnancies are an important reason to marry young – perhaps even the most important reason. And so we must try to prevent teenage pregnancies, ” says Miet Chielens, coordinator of Her Choice at The Hunger Project.
Adele (22) is chairman of the youth club in epicenter Lahotan (Benin) and tells what happens when a girl becomes pregnant unplanned: “If your parents hear you are pregnant in the morning, you are out on the street in the evening. Because of the taboo on unmarried mothers, pregnant girls have no other option than to marry the father of the baby.” A ‘must’, therefore. And that is a problem. Because pregnant or married girls quit school.
“Last year there were sixteen pregnant girls at our school. Most have quit school because there is no one who can look after their babies. Sometimes a teenage mother comes back, but that is the exception. A very smart girl tried it after her pregnancy, but she fell asleep in class all the time and didn’t come along with the rest anymore,” say the young people of Lahotan.
Pregnant with the first time?
Naturally, getting pregnant does not happen automatically. But it is not entirely obvious that girls know exactly how that happens – a ride on the back of a nice boy’s luggage carrier can end up in a fourteen-year-old’s pregnancy. Her Choice has trained many girls in sex education in recent years, but it appears that their knowledge about sexuality is still too limited. For example, they do not know that you can get pregnant from the first time sex. They think that their period protects against pregnancy. Or they do not know what the contraceptive pill is, or how to use a condom. It is important that girls have knowledge about their sexual rights and health. That they know how their body works, how they can become pregnant, how they can prevent this and where they can go for advice and help.
Miet says about that: “That is about so much more than just contraception and sex. Real comprehensive sexual education is also about puberty, about what changes in your body and why. It’s about who you are and how you interact with others. About relationships, peer pressure, friendship and falling in love. It is about self-esteem and setting limits. About what you want and what you think is okay. You want to discuss that with each other, and that is best done through peers – for example through Girls Clubs that we set up. ”
Taboo and embarrassment
Extra difficult is that sex is and remains a sensitive theme: the taboo and the embarrassment is great. Teachers who have been trained to provide sex education at school also sometimes feel too uncertain to actually talk about sexuality with their students. In Uganda this is extra complicated: there it is forbidden to give sex education – only talking about abstinence is allowed.
And then you have to be creative, such as nurse Immaculate from the clinic of the epicenter Namayumba in Uganda: “At schools I tell about the menstrual cycle and through that approach I try to explain how you get pregnant. Unfortunately, my options are limited: I cannot give minors contraceptives. If they do get pregnant, I try to help them as well as possible. For example, by making a lot of links with organizations that can help pregnant girls, so that I can properly refer them in case of problems, such as a failed abortion. And I like to start a conversation with the parents of a pregnant girl. I encourage them to look after their daughter and her child, and especially not to marry her now. So hopefully she can keep going to school. In practice this sometimes works, sometimes not. ”
Work around limitations
In all Her Choice countries, this theme will receive extra attention in the coming two years, in addition to the regular activities. By training the local staff more on comprehensive sexual education and on effective communication with young people and children. Her Choice is looking for good locally developed teaching materials; not just about child marriages but about all aspects of sexual education. Our partners make health centers more friendly to young people. And trained young people start a conversation with each other about sexuality in the broadest sense of the word.
Her Choice offers alternatives to girls who are still young mothers. For example, Solome from Namayumba trains teenage mothers who have dropped out of school. “Four of these fifteen girls are married, the rest live with their baby with their parents. I teach them how to make handicraft – such as jewelry – with which they earn some money. That is going so well that as a group we are now trying to get a loan from the local microcredit bank so that we can increase our production. While working, I talk to the girls about how to feed their children as well as possible. It is a shame that I only have room for fifteen, there are so many more that I would like to help. ”
Her Choice tries to prevent parents from forcing their pregnant teenage daughters to marry, but instead helping them with the baby and having them finish an education. Our partner organizations set up safety nets in the community to protect vulnerable girls. And they train employees, teachers and health workers so that they can work around all kinds of limitations and find a solution for the girls and their children.
Children who have children
So there’s a lot of work to be done. So that Her Choice can give as many girls as possible – and their children – a chance for a future. The conversations with groups of young people make Miet hopeful: “It is so beautiful that Lahotan’s youth group dares to talk so openly about teenage pregnancies and child marriages. I really think they will do things differently for their children. Of course we do everything we can to prevent them from marrying young themselves, but I also expect great effect with their future children. With that next generation I hope to see no more children of children. ”
This article was previously published this year in the annual magazine of The Hunger Project.