Tuesday, November 29, 2005

African girls forced to marry to pay off debts

Sharon LaFraniere:

Uness Nyambi, now about 17, was betrothed as a child so her parents could finance her brother's choice of a bride and now has two children and a husband around 70

Mapendo Simbeye's problems began early last year when the barren hills along Malawi's northern border with Tanzania rejected his attempts to grow even cassava, the hardiest crop of all. So to feed his wife and five children, he said, he went to his neighbor, Anderson Kalabo, and asked for a loan. Mr. Kalabo gave him 2,000 kwacha, about $16. The family was fed.

But that created another problem: how could Mr. Simbeye, a penniless farmer, repay Mr. Kalabo?

The answer would shock most outsiders, but in sub-Saharan Africa's rural patriarchies, it is deeply ingrained custom. Mr. Simbeye sent his 11-year-old daughter, Mwaka, a shy first grader, down one mangy hillside and up the next to Mr. Kalabo's hut. There she became a servant to his first wife, and, she said, Mr. Kalabo's new bed partner.

Now 12, Mwaka said her parents never told her she was meant to be the second wife of a man roughly three decades her senior. "They said I had to chase birds from the rice garden," she said, studying the ground outside her mud-brick house. "I didn't know anything about marriage."

Mwaka ran away, and her parents took her back after six months. But a week's journey through Malawi's dry and mountainous north suggests that her escape is the exception. In remote lands like this, where boys are valued far more than girls, older men prize young wives, fathers covet dowries and mothers are powerless to intervene, many African girls like Mwaka must leap straight from childhood to marriage at a word from their fathers.

Sometimes that word comes years before they reach puberty.

The consequences of these forced marriages are staggering: adolescence and schooling cut short; early pregnancies and hazardous births; adulthood often condemned to subservience. The list has grown to include exposure to H.I.V. at an age when girls do not grasp the risks of AIDS.

Increasingly educators, health officials and even legislators discourage or even forbid these marriages. In Ethiopia, for example, where studies show that in a third of the states girls marry under the age of 15, one state took action in April. Officials said they had annulled as underage the marriages of 56 girls ages 12 to 15, and filed charges against parents of half the girls for forcing them into the unions.

Yet child marriages remain entrenched in rural pockets throughout sub-Saharan Africa, from Ghana to Kenya to Zambia, according to Unicef. Studies show that the average age of marriage in this region remains among the world's lowest, and the percentage of adolescent mothers the world's highest.

Many rural African communities, steeped in centuries of belief that girls occupy society's lower rungs, are inured to disapproval by the outside world.

"There is a lot of talk, but the value of the girl child is still low," said Seodi White, Malawi's coordinator for the Women in Law in Southern Africa Research Trust. "Society still clings to the education of the boy, and sees the girl as a trading tool. In the north, girls as early as 10 are being traded off for the family to gain. After that, the women become owned and powerless in their husbands' villages."

In villages throughout northern Malawi, girls are often married at or before puberty to whomever their fathers choose, sometimes to husbands as much as half a century older. Many of those same girls later choose lifelong misery over divorce because custom decrees that children in patriarchal tribes belong to the father.

Hat tip, Randall Parker!

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