The man first caught a glimpse of Marie Kamara as she ran with her friends past his house near the village primary school. Soon after, he proposed to the fifth-grader.
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“I’m going to school now. I don’t want to get married and stay in the house,” she told him.
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But the pressures of a global pandemic on this remote corner of Sierra Leone were greater than the wishes of a schoolgirl. Nearby mining operations had slowed with the global economy. Business fell off at her stepfather’s tailoring shop, where outfits he had sewn now gathered dust. The family needed money.
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Her suitor was a small-scale miner in his mid-20s, but his parents could provide rice for Marie’s four younger sisters and access to their watering hole. They could pay cash.
Before long, Marie was seated on a floor mat in a new dress as his family presented hers with 500,000 leones (US$50) inside a calabash bowl along with the traditional kola nut.
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“The day they paid for me was on a Friday and then I went to his house to stay,” she says flatly, adding that at least now she gets to eat something twice a day
Many countries had made progress against such traditional and transactional marriages of girls in recent decades, but COVID-19’s economic havoc has caused significant backsliding: The United Nations estimates that hardships resulting from COVID-19 will drive 13 million more girls to marry before the age of 18
Though most such marriages take place in secret, Save the Children estimates that this year alone, nearly half a million more girls under 18 are at risk of being married off worldwide, most in Africa and Asia, but also in the Middle East. One aid organisation said staffers in a remote corner of Sierra Leone overheard a relative offering up a girl as young as eight for marriage earlier this year. When chastised, the grandmother later denied doing so
In most cases, needy parents receive a dowry for their daughter – a bit of land or livestock that can provide income, or cash and a promise to take over financial responsibility for the young bride. The girl, in turn, takes on the household chores of her husband’s family and often farm work too
In pre-pandemic Jordan, only about 10 per cent of girls were married before the age of 18, a much lower percentage than in Africa or South Asia. The number, though, was greater among Palestinian and Syrian refugees there and they are ever more vulnerable, according to the Girls Not Brides organisation
“Sadly, we have seen an increase in child marriage in refugee camps since the beginning of the pandemic as families struggle to cope,” said Tanya Chapuisat, the UNICEF representative for Jordan
India’s harsh lockdown to contain the virus in late March caused millions of impoverished migrants to lose their jobs in cities and many journeyed back to the towns and villages they had left in search of work
With schools closed and pressure on household finances mounting, marrying off young girls has become a more viable option for reducing expenses
The ChildLine India recorded 5,214 early marriages in just four months of lockdown between March and June 2020 across India, considered to be a vast undercount as the majority of cases are not reported, the organization says
In one instance, a 13-year-old girl in Uttar Pradesh notified police that her unemployed father intended to forcibly marry her, said officer Narendra Nath Srivastava. The marriage was averted but not before he took 50,000 rupees (about $675) from the boy’s family
“As the money transaction had taken place, the father was arrested because we feared that the poor girl could have been pushed to child trafficking,” the police officer said
Similarly, in Pakistan’s southern Sindh province, child protection services reported 17 child marriages that were stopped or later dissolved in the first 10 months of the year
“It’s a small number compared to reality. We know that,” said Fauzia Masoom, director of Sindh Child Protection Authority
Intervention is only sometimes effective at preventing the marriages, even where they are illegal. In many countries the legal age to marry is 19, often there are loopholes for parental consent that are used in cases of economic need and early pregnancy to blunt social stigma
Child protection authorities in Bangladesh said they received an 8:30 p.m. call back in June warning that a child marriage was to take place within the hour
The girl’s family thought they could use the lockdown to marry off their daughter in secret. As soon as the officials arrived, however, the groom and his family ran away
Authorities counseled the girl’s family on the consequences of early marriage for their daughter – an end to her education and likely a pregnancy before she is ready. The family said they were desperate because the father was out of work due to the COVID-19 crisis, but promised not to have her marry before she becomes an adult
Then they simply waited for officials to leave and held the wedding at two in the morning