Every year, 13.5 million children under 18 are married, with many having little to no say in the matter – and of that number, 12 million are girls.
It won’t be easy – but ending child marriage is possible. Plan International has been working tirelessly across many countries and for many years to help end child marriage through powerful partnerships with parents, lawmakers, community leaders and especially youth.
Through our work, we encounter many former child brides – Titi* is one of them. Now, a forced marriage survivor, she shares her story.
Titi’s path toward child marriage began in the middle of the night when Boko Haram fired upon her village in North-Western Nigeria.
“We started hearing gunshots in our village, houses were burned down, people were killed,” says Titi. “I had to flee together with my parents and siblings to a safer environment. But we were pursued by the Boko Haram militants.”
During their harrowing escape, Titi lost four of her family members.
“First, it was my mother then two of my brothers and my elder sister. I saw them fall down after being hit by the bullets. I couldn’t do anything, I kept running with the rest of the family. It is the worst feeling in the world to see one’s loved ones in pain and be unable to do anything.”
“My father was then arrested by the military who believed him to be one of the insurgents. Since then I have not set my eyes on him. I don’t know if he is still alive or not,” says Titi.
When Titi’s remaining brothers and sisters finally fled to safety, they spent months walking to reach Niger in search of their eldest sister who lived in Diffa with her husband and children.
The elder sister agreed to take the family in but was unable to pay for them to go to school. This meant Titi spent her days helping with the household chores and taking care of her nephews and nieces.
Forced to Marry a stranger
Within a few months, Titi’s eldest sister made a choice to marry Titi off to a petty trader in the community.
“When I was told that I would be given in marriage to a man, I told my sister I was not interested – instead I wanted to get a job or make income for myself. But she had made up her mind to marry me off to the man so he could take care of my needs and that of the rest of my family members.”
Titi says she was so opposed to the idea of marrying a strange man that she went on hunger strike in a desperate attempt to convince her sister to change her mind.
“She was not even bothered about my hunger strike. I thought that if my parents were still here, maybe I would not have to go through this.”
Despite her protests, Titi, at age 14, was still forced to marry against her will.
“Since the first night of the marriage I told him that I did not love him. And that statement caused me to be constantly beaten and raped. Sometimes he threatened to kill me with a knife and even starved me of food.”
Escaping the nightmare
During Titi’s forced marriage, she endured constant abuse at the hands of her husband, and eventually others started to take notice of how she was being treated.
“One day, my sister’s husband witnessed him abusing me and the issue was taken to the Chief of the village. He warned my husband never to hurt me again or else it would lead to a divorce.”
But Titi’s husband would not stop.
“He hurt me again the very next day after the warning so the marriage between us was dissolved.”
“I am happy. I have woken up from this nightmare called marriage. I was never happy right from day one. Sometimes, I hid in the bush to protect myself from the violence.”
Surviving child marriage
After learning about Titi’s experience, Plan International intervened to help her start the recovery process through medical treatment as well as counselling.
“I received psychological support to overcome the trauma and depression I went through. I also received medical care to treat my wounds at the health centre. It was there that I was diagnosed with high blood pressure,” she says. “I feel much better today.”
When asked about her future hopes and ambitions, Titi tells us: “I hope to see my father again and to make income for myself.”
She also adds a message to parents or family members who are considering marrying off their daughters: “Parents should stop forcing girls to marry if they want to see their daughters alive and happy.”
You can help girls in crisis
Titi’s story is not an isolated case. During times of crisis, child marriage rates increase because families need to make tough choices to survive.
Today, the world is facing an unprecedented global crisis due to COVID-19 and the UN Population Fund estimates that there will be 13 million additional early child marriages over the next decade due to the pandemic – this in addition to the annual average of 12 million.
Plan International Canada is committed to ending child marriage in the communities where we work and right now our focus is on preventing the setback for girls’ rights caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
If you believe, like we do, that every girl has the right to decide when, who and if she marries, then learn more about our work to Stop the Setback for girls around the world.
*Name has been changed to protect identity of minor
Questions related to this story:
- What is child marriage?
- How can we end child marriage?
- Why does child marriage happen?
- What are the health consequences of child marriage?
- What are child marriage myths?