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The Independent - October 21, 2013

by Geeta Bandi-Phillips

I had a wonderful childhood growing up in a small village in Andhra Pradesh, India. The memories I cherish most are playing in the green paddy fields and counting stars at night till my eyes drooped. Everyone knew everyone in the village. I always felt safe. My grandmother, a staff nurse at the local health centre had regular updates on her granddaughters’ whereabouts from the villagers.

It took a while for me to realise that all was not as idyllic as it seemed, especially for adolescent girls. As I progressed from year to year at school, the number of girls there dwindled. At the final year of the school, girls accounted for just one fifth of the whole class. Their disappearance was not a scandal. It was quite the opposite: they got married in loud ceremonies to become respectable wives and daughters-in-law. They were fulfilling what they saw as their duty as obedient daughters. But when my schoolmates started getting married we were just a bunch of 13-year-olds, still figuring out what growing up means.

The recent story of the eight-year-old Yemeni child bride who died on her wedding night comes to mind when I look back. Did my friends have anyone they could talk to when they were scared and needed a shoulder to cry on? I don’t know. I could not know. Girls like us growing up in India were trained to never to ask or answer questions like these.

Later on, it wasn’t a surprise when I learned that India accounts for 40 per cent of the 57.5 million child brides across the world. They were not statistics. They were my friends.

This summer when I went back to visit my village, after 20 years, I was ready for all sorts of news. Even then I was surprised when I learned about the grandchildren of school friends who are still in their thirties. It once again pushed me to think about how fast the generations turn and how we take our young women for granted. It’s hard for me to imagine what it would be like if I was never given the chance to study, do what I liked most, travel, and marry the man I love.

Child marriages are the results of the ugliest side of poverty, and they keep communities trapped in that poverty. The Millennium Development Goals’ promises of health and education that world leaders made in 2000 have helped young women take a step towards their dreams. But many are still left behind. Ending child marriage will enable those who hold up half the sky to stand strong.

As India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said, “If you educate a man you educate an individual; however, if you educate a woman you educate a whole family. Women empowered means mother India empowered”. This is true not just for India, but for the entire world.

I long to see my friends’ children allowed to be children – to avoid getting married at the age of 13 and starting a family at 14. I long to see all young women exercise their right to choose – from the smallest thing about what to wear, to the most important of whom to marry and when to have children.

Facts about child marriage:

- Every year, 13.5 million girls around the world marry before their 18th birthday.

- An estimated 142 million girls will be married in the decade to 2020

- Girls living in poor households are twice as likely to marry before 18 than girls in higher income households

- Once married, girls experience intense pressure to bear children as soon as possible which can have devastating consequences  on their health

- Girls below the age of 15 are also five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s

- Globally, perinatal deaths are 50 per cent higher among babies born to mothers under the age of 20 than among those born to mothers aged 20–29 years

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