Every two seconds, somewhere in the world a girl is forced to marry. That's 28 child brides a minute. So by the time you finish reading this blog, 100 childhoods could have been cut short. Child marriage is a fundamental violation of a girl's rights. In its most violent form it begins with abduction. Here, women and girls kidnapped in northern Ghana, where ActionAid works, talk about how they survived.
“They just grabbed me. I thought they were going to kill me”
As dusk turned into night and the crowds ebbed away, 15-year-old Fatima began walking home with her younger brother. They were returning from a funeral where — in keeping with tradition — hundreds had gathered to pay their respects. Suddenly, a motorbike carrying two men came to a screeching halt beside them.
The men asked Fatima to get on the bike. She refused, so they grabbed her and forced her. Fatima’s nine-year-old brother cried out but his voice and figure soon faded with the dust as the motorbike roared off into the night.
“I wailed and shouted but they clamped their hands over my mouth,” said Fatima. “I thought they were taking me to go and kill me.”
Instead, they drove for an hour until they reached the men’s village.
“Educated people are developing the world… I want my granddaughter to be one of them”
Meanwhile, Fatima’s family had raised the alarm. Her grandfather and guardian, Dotto, sought help from her teachers, who had been trained by ActionAid to combat marriage by abduction.
Dotto, 76, asked around and narrowed down the places she might be. He then sent Fatima’s uncle to retrieve her. At first, the kidnappers denied she was there. But after Fatima’s uncle lobbied the village chief, they released her.
“I was happy,” said Fatima. “I was thinking, once I get home, I can continue with my education.”
Around 50 girls a year are abducted for marriage in the Upper West region of Ghana, an ActionAid survey found.
“It’s quite common for men to snatch girls like this on motorbikes,” said Fatima. “I don’t know why it happens.”
“Men abduct women because they think it’s the only way…”
Fulera, 30, thinks she knows why this practice persists.
“Men abduct women because they think you are not interested in him so that is the only way he can get you,” said the mother of five.
Fulera was abducted by a gang and forced to marry at 15. When the men bounded towards her, she had a spilt second to act. She dropped the pestle she’d been using to pound shea nuts, ran to a mud hut and climbed on to the flat roof. Below, the men circled, shouting up at her. Cornered and alone, she had no choice but to climb down.
As soon as her feet touched the ground, her childhood ended. She was carried to another village and forced to marry one of the men. He was around 30, twice her age.
“Life was not easy for me as a child bride,” she said.
Fulera said her mother-in-law had died and there was no older woman in the household to guide her. This meant she didn’t realise she was pregnant until she went into labour.
“I was 16 years old when I had my first child,” she said. “I didn’t know if you were supposed to feel pain or not.”
Fulera said the work of NGOs such as ActionAid is helping to keep girls safe. “If a man grabs her, ActionAid will follow and punish the man and bring her back.”
The policewoman fighting back
Lydia, 34, is a policewoman who rescues abducted girls.
In the Upper West region of Ghana, where more than 70 per cent of the population live on less than 68p a day, poverty and patriarchy fuel the problem.
“Men are snatching girls because they think it’s traditional,” said Lydia. “But I don’t see it that way.”
Lydia has teamed up with local ActionAid workers to raise awareness of the dangers of child marriage.
ActionAid runs meetings where men, women, boys and girls are told it is illegal. They also challenge damaging myths that men who abduct their brides are demonstrating their masculinity and that there is no value in educating girls.
“They call me his wife… but we have nothing in common”
Girls are kidnapped for marriage in many countries including Rwanda, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, India and China. Abuse of power and the perception of women as objects allows this practice to continue.
Child brides usually drop out of school and are more likely to suffer domestic violence.
Sanatu, 34, was abducted when she was 15. She is still married to her kidnapper and has four children.
“I’m doing everything on my own. He doesn’t give me anything, any support,” she said. “So I’m just in the community. They call me his wife but we have nothing in common.”
The village elder who rescues girls
Mary Lily, 50, is an ActionAid child sponsorship volunteer who is determined to stop another generation of girls being forced into marriage.
“Whatever it takes I will make sure girls do not marry at such a tender age,” said Mary Lily, who is also a teacher. “They must finish their education.”
She took action when two girls from her village were abducted last year.
When one of them, 18-year-old Juliet, was not returned by her kidnappers, Mary Lily worked with her father and their village chief to get her back.
In what has proved an effective method — devised with the help of local police — they sent a letter warning the abductors to free Juliet immediately or face prosecution.
In northern Ghana a letter holds great sway because it is associated with authority and proves the crime has been officially recorded. Juliet was released back to her uncle, who came to collect her.
“I feel Mary Lily and the chief did very well to bring me back,” said Juliet. “I wish that other girls that this happens to can also come back and go to school.”
Please donate to support amazing local women such as Lydia and Mary Lily to ensure girls are saved from child marriage,
Photo credits: Ruth McDowall/ActionAid.