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      The Worth of A Girl: Child Marriage Around the World

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      Somaya was 13 years old and a seventh grade student in Herat, Afghanistan, when her father sold her into marriage. He received $3,300 for agreeing to let her marry the son of a relative.

      The young bride moved into her husband's family home. Somaya says her father then spent much of the $3,300 on bedding for her home, clothing and jewelry.

      When Somaya asked if she could continue her education, she says both her husband and mother-in-law beat her.

      "I kept telling them that I wanted to go to school," Somaya said. "But my in-laws told me, 'If you go to school, who will do the house chores? We bought you.'"

      About 650 million children and women alive today were married before age 18. That is about 17 percent of the world's female population, reports the UN Children's Fund, UNICEF.

      In a yearlong project, Voice of America met with child brides from Albania to Pakistan to Tanzania. They put faces and voices on a practice that the United Nations is trying to end by 2030.

      Ending child marriage is critical to improving worldwide health, ending poverty and expanding human rights, UNICEF says. Teenage brides are often physically abused, and their lives of housework and childbearing keep widespread gender inequality very much alive in their communities.

      The World Health Organization reports the leading cause of death for females ages 15 to 19 are problems linked to pregnancy and giving birth. Babies born to girls younger than 18 also have higher risks of death and poor development.

      Countries with highest rate of child marriage

      In 2017, UNICEF listed the countries with the highest rates of child marriage before age 18. The top five were Niger, Central African Republic, Chad, Bangladesh and Mali.

      The term 'child marriage' is defined as official marriages and unofficial unions in which a girl or boy under age 18 lives with a partner as if married.

      Early marriage does not happen in only one area or in one religion. For example, the U.S. state of Missouri recently raised the lowest lawful age for marriage to 16. People from neighboring states had long crossed into Missouri to get married, often because the girl was pregnant. Sometimes the fathers feared charges of statutory rape in their home state.

      Girls Not Brides is a London-based partnership of more than 1,000 organizations working to end child marriage. It reports that in Nigeria, the Islamic militant group Boko Haram gives some members wives in payment for fighting. In the country's north, 65 percent of girls are married before they turn 18.

      On the Indonesian island of Lombok, a girl who is not married by 16 is said to be a source of shame to her family.

      Lakshmi Sundaram led Girls Not Brides from 2012 until earlier this year. She said many people mistakenly think child marriage is restricted to a few small villages around the world.

      "It's happening everywhere," she said. "It may look a bit different in different places, but it is a universal issue."

      Yet more than 12 million girls get married by age 18 every year, UNICEF reports. They are often forced into such unions.

      This mainly affects girls from poor and rural areas, where child marriage is an ingrained cultural practice that some people see as protecting women who have few choices.

      Worth of a Girl — grid of portraits of the 15 women who became child brides and the one who escaped.
      Worth of a Girl — grid of portraits of the 15 women who became child brides and the one who escaped.

      Global worth

      VOA reporters around the world explored the worth of a girl. They looked at how a young bride is valued by two families — the one she leaves behind, and the one she joins — and the cost to the girl herself of marriage before adulthood.

      To get additional information, VOA news teams produced short videos of girls and women talking about their experiences as brides and young mothers.

      These programs have been seen millions of times and received thousands of comments. Viewers have sent arguments for and against child marriage. The messages included comments about faith, money, culture, power, sexism and love.

      Over the next several days, VOA Learning English will present some of the powerful stories of girls and women from all over the world.

      I'm Caty Weaver.

      VOA reported this story. Caty Weaver adapted it for Learning English. --------------George Grow was the editor.

      Words in This Story

      bride -n. a woman who has just married or is about to be married?

      chore -n. a difficult or disagreeable task that is done regularly?

      practice -n. the usual way of doing something?

      gender -n. the state of being male or female : sex

      childbearing -n.of or relating to the process of conceiving, being pregnant with, and giving birth to children

      statutory rape -n. sexual intercourse with a person who is below the statutory age of consent?

      shame -n. dishonor or disgrace?

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