All over the world, women and girls are forced to marry against their will. 82 million girls who now live in developing countries and are between the ages of 10 and 17 will be married before their 18th birthday.1 Most of these marriages take place in the world’s poorest nations; parents and families often justify marrying off their young daughters as a way to gain economic security and status. Most of these girls are unable to complete their education and are at greater risk of being exploited, of contracting sexually transmitted infections—including HIV—and of dying or being injured in childbirth because their bodies are too immature to withstand the rigors of birth.2 Women and girls who try to escape such a marriage may be ostracized, imprisoned, beaten, or killed by their male relatives.
When Ebuni*, a native of Guinea, was 23 years old, she was ordered by her family to marry an old man who already had 3 wives and 16 children. Before the wedding, Ebuni was tricked by her family to undergo the painful ritual of female genital cutting. After her wounds were healed, Ebuni unsuccessfully tried to escape and avoid the wedding. Her family beat her so badly for her refusal to marry that she fell unconscious and was hospitalized for a week.
Years into the marriage, Ebuni finally found a measure of peace in raising her children. Then, suddenly, her husband announced that he had accepted a wedding dowry for their oldest daughter, Saran*. The man he had consented to was old and already had three other wives. Saran, like her mother, tried to prevent the genital cutting ritual and forced wedding. Family members ruthlessly beat her for her opposition. Saran suffered a broken leg, a dislocated knee, and a deep head wound. When Ebuni and Saran appealed to the authorities, police said it was a family problem and berated them for going against local customs.
Ebuni could not step aside and let her daughter endure the same suffering she did. Her last chance to protect her daughters was to leave the country. She sold all her possessions and fled to the United States. Once here, Tahirih worked with Ebuni to prepare an asylum application. After more than two years of frustrating court delays, on July 14, 2005, Ebuni and her daughters were granted asylum.
1 UNFPA, 16 Days of Activism to End Violence Against Women, Fact Sheet on Early Child Marriage, http://www.unfpa.org/news/news.cfm?ID=900, last visited June 12, 2007. Quoting, UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, “Early Marriage: Child Spouses,” Innocenti Digest, No. 7, March 2001.
2UNFPA, 16 Days of Activism to End Violence Against Women, Fact Sheet on Early Child Marriage, http://www.unfpa.org/news/news.cfm?ID=900, last visited June 12, 2007. Quoting, UNFPA and UNIFEM, “Improving Social and Economic Opportunities for Adolescent Girls in Ethiopia and Bangladesh,” Joint Proposal for a Planning Grant.
*Client’s name has been changed to protect privacy