Images of children dominate every parent’s social media account. There is a consistent annual trend for photos taken of a child’s first day of school. The children are beaming in their ironed uniforms, new schoolbags armed with a mischievous smile that ushers in the innocent misbehaving that is to be expected at school.
Parents are proud of their children sometimes for no other reason than merely the fact that they exist.
Sadly however, sometimes other pictures emerge posted by proud parents on social media. The children in these photos aren’t brandishing uniforms or carrying schoolbags. There are no mischievous smiles. In these pictures girls are camouflaged with heavy makeup, hair coiffed and their bodies are squashed, not under the weight of heavy schoolbags, but instead under the weight of a wedding dress or for a boy a suit.
The labor of adulthood has suddenly dropped on their immature bodies to catapult them into womanhood or manhood when in fact it hasn’t yet arrived.
An image surfaced recently in Egypt of an engagement party hosting an 11-year old bride accompanied by her 12-year old groom. In the picture the girl’s gaze is cast down, lids heavy with the fake lashes and mascara, hair straightened, body wrapped in pink satin and no smile. Probably too afraid to ruin her makeup and receive scorn from her parents.
She was being prepared to be a good future wife, submissive, docile, and wrapped in the unrelenting garment that will cloister her body to look pretty for her future husband. The boy is in a white shirt and black trousers, nervously leaving his arm resting in case the bride wants to hold on to it.
Like all children do, they try to emulate the grownups, to mirror what they believe a woman and man should do. Only this time this isn’t an innocent play of bride and groom between two children. It is an authentic tragedy that is synchronized, aided and abetted by the parents.
They say a picture speaks a thousand words. This picture of celebration tells of thwarted potential, loss of innocence, of parents who still believe that a girl’s natural place is the home, and a boy who can make a living is fit for marriage.
The picture whispers of a previous time when their parents’ generation saw this as acceptable. It speaks of a cycle of historical ignorance where they are now enforcing a bygone age upon their children. If the cycle isn’t broken it perpetuates a norm that is, in fact an abomination. I despair that adults that believe it is ok to follow this path remain in our society.
One hour after the picture was posted the authorities arrested the children’s parents on charges of child endangerment and abuse. Yet, child marriages occur far too often and aren’t always displayed to the public eye for fear the authorities will intervene.
Girls are usually taken out of schools to prepare their lives for the future care of their parents. Usually the older girl is kept at home to help her mother with house chores and to take care of her many siblings in preparation for her marriage.
The far too young bride who has probably lived in dire poverty has suddenly assumed the privileged position of being everyone’s center of attention, so she enjoys it. She enjoys the shopping, the gifts, and being the sole recipient of a forced affection from her groom to be.
No one tells her about the physical and psychological toll of being a child bride. No one tells her of the risks of early pregnancy, or what it takes to be a mother. No one tells her that her husband might grow up to become an abusive man, or that her children will not be registered because her marriage isn’t legal until she is 18.
The knock on effect of this means that her child will not have access to vaccines or subsidized services provided by the government.
No one tells her any of that.
They just say congratulations, you are now a grown up, we will buy you lots of gifts and you will live in your own house. She doesn’t question anything because her eyes are dazzled and even if she does, no one will answer.
The Egyptian government has launched several initiatives and legislative amendments to tackle the catastrophe of child marriage. More will follow.
The amendments include raising the legal age of marriage, and the provision of telephone hotlines to report cases of child wedlock. The introduction of harsh legal penalties for adults who are involved in underage marriages act as deterrents that hinder this act. But it still happens. A pervasive and systemic strategy must be put in place to prevent the occurrence of all child marriages, and the ones that appear on social media.