Breaking Free from Child Marriage
When Mamoni’s older brother came to fetch her from her friend’s house one afternoon, she knew the news wasn’t good. “What’s wrong?” she asked. “Why do you need me?” The reason became immediately clear when she walked through the doorway of her home. There was a group of adults sitting across from her mum, drinking chai. She knew this wasn’t a social visit. They wanted 14-year-old Mamoni to marry their son.
16 Mar, 2017
In Mamoni’s community in India, girls, particularly those from low-income families, often marry when they’re still teenagers. In fact, according to the World Health Organisation, the risk of child marriage in India is among the highest in the world.
The dangers of child marriage are well documented. According to UNICEF, child brides are at risk of violence, abuse and exploitation. They are less likely to remain in school, more likely to experience domestic violence, and have a higher risk of dying during pregnancy and childbirth.
It’s a future Mamoni desperately wanted to avoid. When her mother introduced her to the couple in their home, she tried to convince herself that nothing would come of the meeting. “I thought they won’t like me and the marriage would be called off,” says Mamoni. But inside, she was panicking.
In an attempt to put an end to the couple’s interest in her, she fidgeted and tried to appear impatient, hoping they would find her rude. It didn’t work. “They liked me eventually,” she says. Mamoni could feel her future slipping away.
“When they said they liked me I felt like suddenly I’ve reached the end of the road. I felt that I wouldn’t be able to fulfil my dreams.”
According to non-profit Girls Not Brides, poverty is one of the main drivers for child marriage. Giving a daughter in marriage means there is one less mouth to feed, while in communities where the dowry system operates, the ‘bride price’ may be welcome income for poor families. The practice can trap girls and families in a cycle of poverty, depriving them of educational and economic opportunities.
Mamoni’s mother had good intentions; she wanted the best for her only daughter. Their family was struggling to survive, so when a couple expressed interest in Mamoni as a wife for their son, she thought she’d found a solution.
“We were never financially well off … so she wanted to get me married soon,” says Mamoni. “[The couple] were quite well off and my mother was worried she wouldn’t get such a match [for me] later on, so she wanted to get me married [then and] there.”
Mamoni’s mother believed finding a husband for her young teenage daughter—even though it is illegal—would give Mamoni a better life. But Mamoni’s impending marriage spelt out the end of her dreams—and, likely, the end of her education, as early marriage often sees girls dropping out of school.
Mamoni loved the tailoring training and beautician classes she attended through her Compassion child development centre, and her biggest dream was to finish school and become a teacher. Unable to raise her fears with her mum—“I never speak against my mother”—Mamoni confided in her brother.
Even with his support, Mamoni was still consumed with worry. She turned to the only other people she felt she could trust: Compassion staff members. When Mamoni told Merry, her favourite staff member, Merry immediately reassured her. “Don’t worry,” she said. “We’ll speak to your mother.”
The meetings between Mamoni’s Compassion centre program director—a man she fondly dubs ‘Sir’—and her mother were more than just a conversation about Mamoni’s future. Speaking against child marriage was challenging years of tradition: Mamoni’s own mother was married as a young teenager. But gradually, conversation by conversation, Mamoni’s mother had a change of heart.
Compassion staff reminded Mamoni’s mother of her daughter’s young age, and the tailoring and beautician skills Mamoni was learning through Compassion and her local school—skills that could give her an income and a better life in the future.
“My mother was also happy that now I can become a professional,” says Mamoni.
“That’s why when advised by madam, she consented. She was not convinced in the beginning, then by the grace of God and advice of madam, she agreed to call off my marriage.”
Mamoni was so happy she felt like shouting from the rooftops. But it wasn’t until she participated in a training exercise as part of her beautician course that she felt the true impact of the news. The course includes learning bridal makeup, so Mamoni received the full bridal treatment—traditional dress, flashy jewellery, and full makeup.
The experience brought home to Mamoni just how close she had come to being a child bride.
“I got extremely scared,” she says. “I thought, if I was married I would have dressed like this; would have had to leave everything and would not be able to reach my goal.”
Today, Mamoni is in school, right where she needs to be. Each day in the classroom brings her one step closer to her goal of helping children just like her.
“I want to become a teacher and teach poor children so they do well in life,” she says.
She already knows the advice she’ll give her future students. “I’ll tell them that they should focus on their studies and dreams,” she says. “There’s ample time left to get married.”
Sponsoring a girl helps them to be known, loved and protected.
This content was correct at the time of publishing. Compassion closed its programs in India on 15 March 2017 and no longer works in that nation.
Words by Zoe Noakes
Photos by Andy Meier