Tisha gazes blankly at the camera with kohl-lined eyes. She is veiled in silken red fabric and festooned with golden jewelry. Her lips are painted ruby red, her plump young cheeks a delicate pink. Her skirt trails clumsily after her. It’s too long. It was made for an older woman.
Tisha is 14 Years Old, and this is a Wedding Shoot.
Nearby, a group of women have gathered. They cluster together, muttering, their faces wreathed in frowns. The photographer swallows nervously. He can feel their tension. Suddenly, an idea comes to him. He whispers in Tisha’s ear. A smile spreads slowly across her face, lighting it up like a sunrise.
Staring down the barrel of the camera, she boldly proclaims a short phrase in Bengali.
“Stop the wedding.”
Child marriage—marriage before the age of 18, including informal unions—is a violation of children’s rights. Despite being illegal in many countries, it remains widespread. Alarmingly, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are predicted to turbo-charge the harmful practice, putting 10 million more girls at risk over the next decade.
In Bangladesh, 15% of girls are already married by age 15, more than 50% by 18 years old. Despite appearances, Tisha is not one of them. Several of her friends are already wed, though. “When I walk past their homes carrying books and a school bag, it hurts me to see girls my age instead washing dishes and providing service for their in-laws,” she says.
It’s why she agreed to participate in a staged wedding photoshoot – with parental permission – for Compassion. Along with Yolane, 14, in Brazil, and 13-year-old Lauri from the Dominican Republic, she dressed in bridal finery to boldly proclaim the dangers of child marriage.
“No teenagers should get married,” says Tisha, passionately. “When someone has so much scope in life and so many things to do in the future, why sacrifice that? Marriage is not the solution to life’s problems.”
A Generation of Child Brides
The pandemic is increasing the risk of child marriage in several ways. Education is proven to prevent early marriage, with each year of secondary school reducing a girl’s likelihood of marrying before age 18. Yet school closures triggered by COVID-19 may cause girls to drop out entirely or be less likely to re-enroll.
“COVID has created a situation where we know that millions of children will not go back to school,” says Sidney Muisyo, Chief Program Officer for Compassion International. “Every girl who gets educated delays marriage and delays bearing children. The health of the mother, the health of the children, and the health of the family is impacted for years to come, simply because of an early marriage.”
Along with school closures, the pandemic has isolated children from social services. Already vulnerable girls have been cut off from teachers, health professionals, the justice system, and other services that can recognize and support a girl in crisis.
They were Poor Before. They are Poorer Now.
The pandemic has plunged families into desperate poverty. In Brazil, 14-year-old Yolane leans against her simple mud home. She’s dressed in a sagging satin wedding gown and is the same age her sister was when she chose to wed. “First, she left home to live with her boyfriend,” says Yolane. “That’s how it happens most of the time here.” A year later, her sister became pregnant. “A lot of parents encourage girls to marry because girls are seen as a burden at home,” she says.
For parents, it can be a complex and heartbreaking decision. Some feel forced to choose between their daughter’s future and their family’s survival, others believe she will be better off as a bride. Compassion’s partners all over the world are helping to prevent countless early marriages of highly vulnerable girls. Yet despite their best efforts, there are still a small number of children who depart the program early to be wed.
It is a Marriage to Hardship and Labor.
Tisha, Yolane, and Lauri look beautiful—if alarmingly young—in their wedding finery. The reality for young brides is far less glamorous. For girls living in poverty, there is often no ceremony or festivities at all, and the fairy tale they imagined soon crumbles. Child marriage denies girls the opportunity to develop their full potential. They are not only robbed of their childhood but are often socially isolated. Taken out of school, separated from family and friends, they assume responsibilities they are too young for.
In contrast, 13-year-old Lauri swings a hula hoop as her friends joyfully cheer her on. It’s starkly different to the scene just hours ago when Lauri wore white lace and a man twice her age stood at her side. She says she won’t consider marriage until after she has conquered her dreams. Once married, the pressure to become pregnant can be intense, even though girls’ young bodies are not always ready to give birth.
While the situation facing 10 million young girls is desperate, it is not definite. At a grassroots level, girls like Tisha, Yolane, and Lauri—encouraged by their supportive parents and cheered on by Compassion center staff—are sharing their powerful message. “There’s a time for everything,” says Lauri. “Our age is the time to mature, play, grow, learn, and develop our skills and minds to build a future where we can handle responsibilities like marriage.” The four girls are part of their local Compassion child development centers, where dedicated staff and tutors ensure they are known, loved, and protected.
You can Join Them.
In the Dominican Republic, center staff has increased their counseling efforts with girls and their families. In Ethiopia, guest speakers answer parents’ questions. A girls’ club in Brazil prepares teenagers for the joy and challenges of womanhood. In Bangladesh, parents and children gather at the center to discuss the dangers of child marriage.
We need to emphasize that girls are not the property of the husbands or their parents but are change-makers who can contribute to the development of their country.
Lauri intends to become a pediatrician, Tisha is a doctor. Yolane plans to build a two-floor home for her family—with a pool in the backyard.
In Bangladesh, as the camera clicks, Tisha’s proclamation—“Stop the wedding!”—has an instant and dramatic effect. The women look at one another and laugh, their tension dissipating as they understand the purpose of the mock photo shoot. All too often, they see the real thing.
Back at home, Tisha swaps the scarlet and gold sari for her neat blue uniform. She enjoyed wearing the beautiful clothes for a day. But this dress feels much more comfortable. Shrugging on her backpack, she heads to school.
Through sponsorship, you can help protect and free a vulnerable girl to chase her own future. Sponsor today: www.compassion.com/slc.
Please note: This content involved a staged bridal photoshoot to raise awareness, with parental permission.