LA PAZ – The scourge of forced marriages comes to light in some 30 photos in a La Paz exhibition that reflects the truth about millions of very young girls, especially in Asia and Africa, who are forced to marry, some even before adolescence.
“I don’t want any girl to suffer what I did,” is written on one of the photos showing Salma at age 14, a native of Pakistan who after a flood that made the family evacuate their home saw her life change completely.
Her family sought refuge in a camp of flood victims where a woman gave her money and clothes, with the consent of her parents and siblings, in exchange for Salma marrying her son. The girl had no choice but to accept the offer and her destiny along with it.
Salma got pregnant and prayed every night that she wouldn’t have a baby girl, because she would never want her daughter to go through all that she has.
This is one of the stories that accompany the portraits in the “Voces de Niñas” (Voices of Young Girls) exhibit at the House of Culture in La Paz, whose purpose is to expose this common cruelty and highlight the importance of empowering young girls everywhere in the world to understand their rights.
“Forced marriage robs girls of their right to decide, and once married they find it very difficult to continue with their education,” the head of cooperation and aid at the Canadian Embassy in Bolivia, Eliane Moser, told EFE.
The exhibition is being promoted by the Canadian legation, La Paz City Hall and the Girls Not Brides alliance, which brings together institutions from a number of countries to work against a situation that millions of underage girls must endure around the world.
Another of the exhibit’s dramatic stories is that of Zinenani of Malawi, who married at age 13 in hopes of escaping poverty, never thinking that one day her husband would leave her to her fate without any means of supporting her family.
“I thought that child marriage was the best way to escape poverty – I was wrong,” says the note beside the photo in which she hugs her two children.
According to Moser, at least 15 million very young girls around the world are forced to marry, including some little ones who lose most of their childhood to become preteen women without being able to take any decision of their own.
“These marriages force them to leave childhood behind and precociously become adults,” Moser said.
Nancy of Kenya got pregnant at age 13 and had to quit school to marry and care for her children.
When she decided to continue her studies, she had to negotiate with her husband so he would allow her to study, and all by herself had to do the housework, care for her little ones and keep up her academic work.
“My husband said he married a woman and not a student,” Nancy says in the note beside her picture.
However, there are other stories of girls who managed to decide for themselves that they didn’t want to marry or that they wished to restart their lives despite their situation and set out on the path to achieving their dreams.
That was the case of Moushimi of India, who did not repeat what her two sisters did but at age 16 decided to learn to grow crops in order to provide food for her family and take back her rights.
“These days I can tell people what I want and what I need – now I have courage,” says the note beside her photo, in which she is seen with her two sisters.
In Kenya, 14-year-old Jackline was compelled to marry a 35-year-old man, and in time was mistreated by her mother-in-law. Later she was obliged to become the second wife of a neighbor’s brother.
Unable to bear the situation any longer, she escaped with her little boy in order to go back to school and give herself and her child a better future.
“School gives me the freedom to dream,” says her note.
In Bolivia the problem tends to begin with teenage pregnancies, in families that make the young couple get married so they will take charge of the baby. The opinion and decision of the mother is too often ignored, Moser said.