All children should have access to quality education, healthcare, a loving family and the means to live a dignified life with a bright future ahead. However, for millions of girls across the world, the reality is far different. Sadly, a range of harmful practices are plaguing communities across the globe. This includes child marriage – where girls are married under the age of 18, often against their will (forced marriage).
Every year in fact, a staggering 12 million girls are married before the age of 18. That’s almost one girl every two seconds. For these girls, the chance of finishing their education is therefore –more often than not – cut short as their life becomes burned with domestic work and family responsibilities.
Early and forced marriage continues to violate the rights of millions of girls across the globe each and every year – something we’re striving to stop.
Not only are these girls denied the right to play, grow and earn an education but they are also are more likely to experience violence, abuse and forced sexual relations. They are also more vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections (including HIV). What’s more, early pregnancy is one of the most dangerous causes and consequences of this longstanding harmful practice.
Child marriage is therefore a severe, widespread and too-often accepted form of violence against girls in many cultures around the world. Today, both early and forced marriage are most common in Sub-Saharan Africa – where 38% of girls become child brides. However, it’s also present in many other places across the globe – predominantly the Middle East, North Africa and Asia, as well as parts of the USA, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean.
At Islamic Relief, we’re committed to tackling gender inequality in all its forms – including early and forced marriage. We’re therefore working with communities across the ground to combat this harmful practice by providing education and financial support to families with daughters at risk of being married early, as well as supporting those affected through a range of psychosocial and financial care.
One of the many places we’ve been supporting local women and girls is Iraq. Here, just under a quarter of girls are married before the age of 18. In fact, there has recently been investigations into the underground practice of child marriage in the region.
Across Iraq, we’ve therefore been working with local women and girls to help them turn their lives around following their underage marriages. Here are the stories of two survivors of child marriage and their hopes for the future.
Nasrin*: My garden of hope
Born in Iraq, Nasrin was vulnerable to abuse in a country with a high right of early/forced marriage and struggling with ongoing poverty and conflict.
I used to have many friends who I would play with every day. Sadly though, this didn’t last very long. When I was just 12 years old, my life took a miserable turn. Instead of being able to play with my friends, my parents married me off.
Traditionally in our culture, girls get married at a very early age. At that time, I was just an innocent child trying to understand the world for myself, yet I was forced to instead understand a new relationship with my husband and all the domestic responsibilities that came with this.
After I got married, I was bullied and blamed for not having children. I was labelled “barren” and “infertile”. Even though I wasn’t able to understand the meaning of these words at the time, they were still hurtful. They wounded my soul.
What’s more, I was not allowed to go out to visit my neighbourhood or even see a doctor. I managed to survive a few years with my husband and in-laws, yet I felt feelings of guilt and shame. Ultimately, I felt unwanted.
One day, after asking if I could see my family, my husband dropped me back at my parents’ house and left me, without saying a word. He said absolutely nothing. This awkward situation then pushed me into denial. I became depressed and isolated from society. I felt ashamed and hated going out as I was seen as a “woman without a womb”. As a result, I suffered from severe depression. I felt as though I was sinking deeper and deeper each and every day into a pool of sadness.
In June 2014, after armed groups then became active in our area and our lives were changed forever. We were forced to flee for our own safety. Our relatives and community members were slaughtered and women were raped in front of us. Everything changed completely overnight. We had to find a new way to survive in this new reality.
We spent the following days and nights sleeping outside until humanitarian agencies came to set up a camp and provide us with food and basic necessities. Having food and somewhere to sleep gave us hope – hope to rebuild our lives.
We started gaining a greater sense of faith and confidence to build a new future. Meanwhile, Islamic Relief – with the support of UNFPA – set up a safe centre for women. Here, I was able to talk to a caseworker about my situation. She gave me counselling and helped me to file for divorce from my husband.
I was finally free from him and able to focus on the things that made me happy for the first time in my life. Islamic Relief also offered recreational activities in the camp and I discovered my passion for gardening. I now spend most of my time looking after my plants. Although it just seems like a small vegetable garden to everyone else, for me these plants are my life – my children!
Islamic Relief is our voice. They are reaching women and girls within our communities, with counselling and guidance. As a human being, I believe that it’s our right to be safe and free from all types of exploitation and Islamic Relief is helping us to claim this right.
Layla*: Striving for a better future
By being able to access crucial referral and legal support services, Layla – and many more like her – are able to move on with their lives after the horrors of child marriage.
Being a girl in a conservative society is a struggle from the day you’re born. From early childhood, we learn and eventually come to understand that we’re not our parent’s priority. As a result, the struggle to access even our most basic human rights including heath, education and general wellbeing starts.
I wanted to read and learn but I wasn’t able to complete my elementary education because my family were struggling financially. I then got married at the age of 16. Here, in our society, girls are seen as a burden which needs to be paid off as soon as possible, so my parents were pretty happy about it.
When I moved into the home of my husband and his family, my life changed completely. From that moment onwards, life was all about responsibilities, meeting the expectations of my husband and his family and living only according to the choices they made for me. I felt like I was living in an invisible cage. I was not allowed to be myself or to refuse any task – even if I wasn’t feeling well.
However, miracles do happen. God gifted me with two beautiful daughters. They made my life beautiful (again) and after having them, all my struggles, pain and feelings of uneasiness were gone. I felt ready to bear all the pain and suffering ahead of me, in order to give them a better life.
I wanted my daughters to study, to learn and to grow. However, I’d forgotten that I was living in a society where girls are not a priority. My husband and my in-laws put pressure on me for not giving birth to a baby boy and subsequently kicked me out of the house.
I went back to my parents as I didn’t have any other option. My parents treated me well but I felt as if my children and I were a burden. One of my neighbours then told me about Islamic Relief’s Women’s Centre in Baghdad and how all the women and girls in my neighbourhood were visiting this place. Initially, I was a little sceptical as we had never experienced any services exclusively for women before in our area but I convinced myself to visit the centre and see it for myself.
I remember when I visited the centre for the first time. I was amazed to see so many women and girls there. In every room, Islamic Relief staff were busy facilitating various activities and I attended one of their awareness-raising sessions. On another day, I then approached a social worker and shared my story with her.
I sought her advice on how to file for divorce but I was still worried about getting custody of my daughters as well as a monthly subsistence allowance for them. My social worker guided me on my rights and then referred me for legal guidance.
Since my husband was working with the military and knew many influential people, it was very difficult at the beginning to move forward. However, I kept on and struggled through. My lawyer (a volunteer) supported me throughout the case with no charge.
My husband kept on threatening that he would take my daughters away, but I stood up to him. Against all the odds, I won the case and the court bound my husband to provide proper financial maintenance for my two daughters. I’ve since requested for Islamic Relief to help me enrol on a sewing course. I want to learn for my daughters and to earn a livelihood so I can support their studies.
Nasrin and Layla are just two of the millions of girls across the globe affected by the horrors of child marriage. In fact, if we don’t act now, more than 150 million girls will become child brides by 2030. We need to take action today and understand #ThroughHerEyes, the impact of child marriage.
Share this blog and take action in your community today to help raise awareness of the rights of women and girls.
*Names and images have been changed to protect the individuals’ identities.