National Geographic : 2011 Jun
• exactly this fashion---where grandmothers and great-aunts are urging the marriages forward, in fact, insisting, I did it this way and so shall she---it's possible to see how the most dedicated anti-child-marriage campaigner might hesitate, trying to fathom where to begin. "One of our workers had a father turn to him, in frustration," says Sreela Das Gupta, a New Delhi health spe- cialist who previously worked for the Interna- tional Center for Research on Women (ICRW), one of several global nonpro ts working actively against early marriage. " is father said, 'If I am willing to get my daughter married late, will you take responsibility for her protection?' e worker came back to us and said, 'What am I supposed to tell him if she gets raped at 14?' ese are questions we don't have answers to." of the rat and the elephant one day in early summer, some weeks into my time among girls who are expected to marry very young. I was in the backseat of a small car in re- mote western Yemen, traveling along with a man named Mohammed, who had o ered to bring us to a particular village down the road. "What happened in this village has given me strong feelings," he said. " ere was a girl here. Ayesha is her name." e Prophet Muhammad's youngest wife was also named Ayesha, but this was not of interest to our Mohammed just now. He was extremely angry. "She is 10 years old," he said. "Very tiny. e man she married is 50 years old, with a big belly, like so." Spreading his arm around him, he indicated massive girth. "Like a rat getting married to an elephant." Mohammed described the arrangement called shighar, in which two men provide each other with new brides by exchanging female relatives. " ese men married each other's daughters," Mo- hammed said. "If the ages had been proper be- tween the husbands and new wives, I don't think anyone would have reported it. But girls should not marry when they are 9 or 10. Maybe 15 or 16." Fifty families live in the rock and concrete houses of the village we visited, between cactus stands and dry furrowed farm plots. e local leader, or sheikh, was short and red-bearded, with sound of their songs to the bathing brides---it feels in nitely more di cult to isolate the nature of the wrongs being perpetrated against these girls. eir educations will be truncated not only by marriage but also by rural school systems, which may o er a nearby school only through h grade; beyond that, there's the daily bus ride to town, amid crowded-in, predatory men. e middle school at the end of the bus ride may have no private indoor bathroom in which an adolescent girl can attend to her sanitary needs. And schooling costs money, which a practical family is surely guarding most carefully for sons, with their more readily measurable worth. In In- dia, where by long-standing practice most new wives leave home to move in with their husbands' families, the Hindi term paraya dhan refers to daughters still living with their own parents. Its literal meaning is "someone else's wealth." Remember this too: e very idea that young women have a right to select their own partners--- that choosing whom to marry and where to live ought to be personal decisions, based on love and individual will---is still regarded in some parts of the world as misguided foolishness. roughout much of India, for example, a majority of mar- riages are still arranged by parents. Strong mar- riage is regarded as the union of two families, not two individuals. is calls for careful negotiation by multiple elders, it is believed, not by young people following transient impulses of the heart. So in communities of pressing poverty, where nonvirgins are considered ruined for marriage and generations of ancestors have proceeded in Ayesha's father ordered her to put on high heels to look taller and a veil to hide her face. He warned that if he was sent to jail, he would kill her when he got out.