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Wed Too Soon, Inside The Horrifying Secret World Of Child Brides As Young As Five Married To Old Men

Oct. 12 2012, Published 9:30 a.m. ET

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By Debbie Emery - Reporter

The bride wore pink, a tiny tee-shirt with a butterfly on it that was suitable for the five-year-old girl, but sadly her impending marriage was a world away from being age-appropriate.

Rajani is one of the countless under age victims of the illegal child bride industry that is uncovered in a new ground-breaking investigation, Too Young To Wed, that was launched on Thursday  to coincide with the International Day of the Girl Child, learned in an e-mail statement from United Nations Population Fund (UNPF).

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The startling revelations shed light on the millions of women around the world who are forced to wed before they are even teenagers, such as Tehani, a six-year-old from Yemen who became a wife before she even knew how babies were made. Or Meigon, 11, from Afghanistan, who revealed, "In my whole life, I have never felt love."

The remote Indian village of Rajasthan is spotlighted in the shocking study and the focus of a National Geographic article that reveals how the illicit ceremonies are conducted late at night, with the drunken grooms arriving by car instead of the customary elephant or the lavishly saddled horses.

Joining Rajani on her wedding night were her aunts, Radha and Gora, 15 and 13, who unlike her were old enough to understand their fate. The only person to have met the future husbands was their father  - and Rajani's grandfather – a farmer named Mr. M, who clandestinely hid the ceremony from the watchful eye of the police, as in India girls may not legally marry before age 18.

"Child marriage spans continents, language, religion, caste. In India the girls will typically be attached to boys four or five years older; in Yemen, Afghanistan, and other countries with high early marriage rates, the husbands may be young men or middle-aged widowers or abductors who rape first and claim their victims as wives afterward, as is the practice in certain regions of Ethiopia," reveals National Geographic writer, Cynthia Gorney, who has traveled around the world with photographer Stephanie Sinclair capturing heartbreaking tales and images.

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One tells of Ghulam, the 11-year-old bride from Afghanistan who was married off in 2005, forced to drop out of school, giving up on her dream of becoming a teacher one day. Parents often remove their daughters from school even before they are engaged to limit their interactions with boys.

Some marriages are business transactions – such as a debt cleared in exchange for an 8-year-old bride or the resolution of a family feud by handing over a 12-year-old virgin – while others aim to unite families and combat overwhelming poverty.

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A man named Mohammed in remote western Yemen told of a girl in his village named Ayesha. "She is 10 years old," he said. "Very tiny. The man she married is 50 years old, with a big belly, like so.

"Like a rat getting married to an elephant."

Mohammed described the arrangement called shighar, in which two men provide each other with new brides by exchanging female relatives.

"These men married each other's daughters," he explained. "If the ages had been proper between the husbands and new wives, I don't think anyone would have reported it. But girls should not marry when they are 9 or 10. Maybe 15 or 16."

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Near the end of her trip to Yemen, Gorney received a dispatch that highlighted the horror of the illegal matrimonies. "Newspapers were reporting that a bride from a village had been dropped off at a Sanaa hospital four days after her wedding," she wrote.

"Sexual intercourse appeared to have ruptured the girl's internal organs, hospital officials said. She had bled to death. She was 13 years old."

It is estimated that about 51 million girls below age 18 are currently married, often under the cover of darkness and in secret. In Afghanistan alone, it is believed that approximately 57 percent of girls wed before the legal age of 16.

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In many cases, the girls are lorded over by their husbands and in-laws, leaving them vulnerable to domestic violence as well as physical, sexual and verbal abuse.

Underage wives who are lucky enough to escape from their husbands end up living in poverty, or worse. Some girls turn to prostitution to earn a meager income and enter brothels, where they are subjected to horrific abuse.

It is estimated that over the next decade, 100 million more girls — or roughly 25,000 girls a day — will marry before they turn 18 if this issue is not urgently addressed.

For more information and to take action, visit TooYoungToWed or the UNFPA.


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