Every year, 12 million girls under 18 are married. Child marriage is a serious human rights violation and harmful practice that occurs across the globe. Not only does child marriage cut short a girl’s education, but also it increases her risk of physical and sexual abuse, as well as health problems.
It won’t be an easy feat – but ending child marriage is possible if parents, communities, governments and donors work together to change the story for millions.
Through Plan International’s many years of work to end child marriage around the world, we encounter stories from current and former child brides – 15-year-old Latifa from Tanzania was one of them.
Now, she shares her story of how she was sold into marriage and forced to share a bed with an older man she had never met before.
Warning: This story contains content that may be disturbing for some readers.
Let me start at the beginning. I come from a family of six. We only had enough money to eat twice a day, at breakfast and lunch. Almost every day we went to bed hungry.
I loved to go to school. In particular, I liked science and physics. I was good too, got good grades and dreamed of becoming a pediatrician.
Every time I walked past the large hospital in my hometown, I thought that one day I’ll be working in there in a white coat and helping young children who have become ill with malaria and other things. I worked hard, listened to the teachers and did my homework every day.
Sold into marriage at age 15
Then came the day when everything changed. I had started in 6th grade and was determined to go to middle school but my father said that I should not go to school the next day. I would never go to school again; instead I would be married off to a man named Salum.
Father said he was 35 years old and that he had paid to marry me. I was completely silent and did not understand what they were saying. I remember wondering what it means to get married.
A few days later, my stepmother gave me the dress I would wear the day Salum came to fetch me. The dress was lovely. It was purple with sequins and embellishments. My stepmother said that I looked beautiful and grown up. Then she tried to explain to me what a man expected once he was married. I did not understand what she was talking about.
In the week before I was taken away from home, I cried all the time.
My wedding day
On the day Salum was due to come, I packed all my clothes into a small red bag then a lady from the village arrived to draw henna paint on my arms and legs. I put on the dress and waited.
When Salum arrived, he took me on the bus to the capital, Dar es Salaam. It was where we would live. I remember that he tried to talk to me on the journey. I sat silent, looking down at the floor of the bus and cried. Salum asked why I was crying. I was silent.
Once we got into our new home, he stopped talking. He took off my dress and laid me down on the mattress. What happened afterwards hurt and felt weird and wrong. I was just sad.
My married life
Every day I was alone in the house. Salum worked as a car mechanic and was gone most of the day. I was expected to do everything in the house, go to the market and cook. Everything was new and I found it difficult. I was still sad and cried a lot. I missed school and my friends.
Then he started coming home later in the evenings, often drunk. Then he beat me and forced me to have sex again and again. I wanted to leave him but I had nowhere to go.
After nine months, I gave birth to a baby. The birth took 11 hours and at the end I went to the local hospital built by Plan International. The doctor who was there was kind and helped me. He told me that I could do this. They had to cut me to get the baby out because I was so young.
When Zainabu was born, I was happy to see her. She was healthy and weighed 3.5 kg. That same day, my neighbours took me back home with my new baby. I was confused and happy at the same time. Salum was not home and he did not see his daughter until late in the evening. He did not seem happy.
Abandoned after childbirth
One day I came home to find that the door was locked and there was a suitcase with my things, outside of the door. Salum had disappeared without notice or explanation. I stood there alone with my two-month-old baby strapped onto my back and cried.
The next day I took the suitcase and the baby and went to Burunguri market where I begged for food from market stalls. Those who worked there gave me some rice, beans and occasionally some fruit.
I was hungry all the time – hungry, scared and alone.
At night I slept with the baby. We lay on the ground with a thin red kanga below us. I held her close to me. We lived like this for two months and fortunately Zainabu did not get sick.
Moving on to a happier place
While we were living on the street, a lady called Happy approached us. She took me and my baby home and we were able to sleep there that night. It was the first time in a long time that I slept in a bed.
Since I’ve been living with Happy, life has been a little better. Now I’m not alone anymore. There is someone I can talk to, laugh with and feel that someone cares about me.
Happy earns money selling clothes and food on the market and I am also making some money. Most of the money I use to buy food, clothes, soap and other things we need. But I also save some. Plan International works in the slums where we live, so I have joined a local savings group.
My baby is now almost one year old and I hope that her life will be better than mine. I’ll do what I can to ensure that she gets to go to school and she will not be married to a man against her will.
We can end child marriage
Latifa’s story is unthinkable for most of us here in Canada, but it is a reality for millions around the world.
That’s why Plan International works at local, national and international levels to help girls avoid child marriage and stay in school. With an education, girls are less likely to get married as children and more likely to decide their own futures.
Ending child marriage is possible but we can’t do it without you! Together, we can help empower millions of girls like Latifa to stand up for their rights to say “NO” to child marriage.