Media CenterCarolyn Woo's CNS Column: 'Eradicating Child Marriage -- It Really Does Take a Village'

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By Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo
November 2012

“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matthew 18:2-6)

When I was growing up in Hong Kong, I listened with amazement to the stories about girls who were married off when they were hardly 12 years old. I was so relieved that such old-fashioned practice had vanished. Cramming for exams didn’t seem so bad after all.

Unfortunately I was wrong. Child marriage has not vanished -- it prevails today in various parts of the world. Girls under 15 and the babies born to them face mortality rates several times greater than those who are over 18. These young mothers are also subjected to the risk of obstetric fistula which leads to leakage of urine and feces for the rest of their lives.

In my recent travel to the coastal area of Kenya, I observed first-hand the efforts to eradicate child marriage. Working in partnership with the Catholic Diocese of Malindi and council of interfaith leaders, which included Christians, Muslims, Hindus and African Traditionalists, Catholic Relief Services sponsored a three-year initiative which reached out to 5,000 girls, 140 clerics, 60 community leaders and 120 adults.

The game plan calls for raising awareness of the dangers associated with early child marriage; promoting the rights of children including those of girls for education and proper treatment; increasing the income security of adults to reduce their dependence on dowries as a source of money; connecting with the proper government ministries for enforcing these rights; and educating the children themselves of their rights and the actions they can take to protect themselves.

As the practice of child marriage is steeped in the cultural traditions of the communities, the religious leaders convened fora to educate the public using texts from their Holy books, inviting women scholars to talk to the mothers and daughters, lifting up role models and celebrating women and children through events such as International Women’s Day and Day of the African Child. Often times child marriage and the use of young girls for prostitution are seen as ways to relieve economic hardships. Hence, special programs were started to help communities expand livelihood options, growing vegetable gardens, breeding livestock, starting cottage craft industries. Savings circles that set aside social funds to to address emergencies as well as pay school levies and fees were another addition.

Most powerful for me was a visit to a school when 150 students, in grades four through eight crowded into the classroom to show us what they have learned about children’s rights from their weekly after-school meetings of the Peace Club. They opened with prayer and sparkled their presentation with spirit, curiosity and pride. They sang and chanted in English the verses that resonated from deep within, an unflinching proclamation of their rights to a happy life, one enabled by health, education and love. They called on the elders to continue the care and protection that had been provided when they were younger. Most important, they know that they could report any unwelcome practices whether these are forced on them or on other children. Boys and girls were there in solidarity and I could not help but feel the promise of the young men who would one day become husbands and fathers.

Gifted to me, and now to you, is this poem written by the children of the Dabaso Primary School Peace Club.

I have a right to enjoy my life
I must fight much strife
I see the light to free myself

I have a right to enjoy my life
Child abuse we must stop
All sex misuse hampers our hope
Drug misuse from schools to shop
I have a right to enjoy my life

I am stabbed, before my time
They are not scared, to commit a crime
They shed blood, and live to blame
I have a right to enjoy my life

The chill of the night finds me out
With all fight of jobs I doubt
However bright leaves me drought
I have a right to enjoy my life

Dr. Woo is president & CEO of Catholic Relief Services, the official overseas humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States. This article is part of her ongoing monthly column, Our Global Family, written for Catholic News Service.

Read Dr. Woo's previous columns.