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Girls as young as 5 married off to middle-aged men
Published on 10 Jun. 2011 12:09 AM IST
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Wide-eyed and haunted, the heartbreaking expressions on these young girls’ faces hint at an innocence cruelly snatched away.
They should be playing, learning and enjoying their childhood. But instead these youngsters, some as young as five, are being married off in secret weddings. It is estimated that every year this happens to ten to 12 million girls in the developing world.
In India, the girls will typically be attached to boys four or five years older. But in Yemen, Afghanistan, Ethiopia and other countries with even higher rates of marriage at an early age, the husbands may be young men, middle-aged widowers or even abductors who rape first and claim their victims as wives afterwards.
Some of these marriages are business transactions or to resolve a family feud.
Forced early marriage thrives in many regions, often in defiance of national laws. Whole communities often prescribe to the notion that it is as an appropriate way for a young woman to grow up when the alternative is the risk she loses her virginity to someone before she marries.
Wedding ceremonies are often held in the middle of the night, with the whole village keeping the secret for fear there might be a police raid.
In a project for National Geographic magazine, journalist Cynthia Gorney and photographer Stephanie Sinclair travelled to Yemen and Rajasthan in India to investigate the extent of this shocking practice.
In India girls may not legally marry before the age of 18 - but ceremonies involving girls in their teens may be overlooked. The younger daughters, some aged five, tend to be added on discreetly, their names kept off the invitations.
In one case in Rajasthan where her teenage sisters were also being married, a five-year-old bride named Rajani fell asleep before her wedding ceremony began.
An uncle lifted her from her cot and carried her in the moonlight toward the Hindu priest and future husband - a ten-year-old boy. Although child brides tend to remain with their families until they are older, this is not always the case.
Three years ago, the case of Nujood Ali came to worldwide attention. The ten-year-old Yemeni girl managed to escape her home and made her way to a courthouse to request a divorce from the man in his 30s her father had forced her to marry and who beat her. She became the poster girl for children in her position around the world and a recent book, translated into 30 languages - I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced. She is now back with her family and has returned to school.
Not all girls have such a lucky escape. Few who are married off as children have any chance of an education but there are far worse consequences.
Many are raped and have a low life expectancy due to the number of children they carry at such a young age.
Girls suffer physical abuse and are too frightened to escape because they are threatened with death.
In another case in Yemen, it was discovered that a ten-year-old girl Ayesha had been married off to a 50-year-old man. The journalists were told by her sister Fatima that ‘little Ayesha screamed when she saw the man she was to marry’.
Someone alerted the police, but Ayesha’s father ordered her to put on high heels to look taller and a veil to hide her face.

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