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Child marriage: One dress away from exploitation

06 May 2022

A photography project highlights the dangers of child marriage. Report by Francis Martin

Yrahisa Mateo © Compassion International

Lauri, aged 13, supported by Compassion in Dominican Republic, in a staged photoshoot

Lauri, aged 13, supported by Compassion in Dominican Republic, in a staged photoshoot

A YOUNG bride gazes into the camera. A man — her husband, or perhaps her father — stands beside her, his arm guarding the slender shoulders from which her white dress falls.

It should be a treasured image: framed and given pride of place on the mantelpiece, a source of wonderment to her grandchildren — was grandmother really once so young, and so beautiful?

But the grip that the man has on her shoulder is too tight, and the glassiness of her eyes is the effect of fear rather than tears of joy. And look again at her face, crudely painted with make-up: how old can she be?

Lauri, the girl in the photo, is only 13. She isn’t really married, although she easily could be: in the Dominican Republic, where she lives, 12 per cent of girls were married before the age of 15 in 2014. The country has recently outlawed child marriage, but the practice continues.

Another photo stands in striking contrast to that of the young bride. This one shows Lauri as she really is: a child, laughing with her friends.

In a Q&A with Compassion UK, one of those friends, Fracieli, speaks of how getting married young has destroyed the childhood of girls around her: “I have a 13-year-old friend that has already lost a child. Another one is 17, and she has two children already. I don’t want that, either for me or any other girl.”


THE photographs are part of a campaign by the Christian charity Compassion to draw attention to child marriage around the world. A UNICEF report last year found that, despite a reduction in rates of child marriage in the past decade, the pandemic had put an additional ten million girls at risk.

J Sangma/Compassion InternationalTisha, 14, Bangladesh

“Covid-19 has made an already difficult situation for millions of girls even worse,” the executive director at UNICEF, Henriette Fore, says. “Shuttered schools, isolation from friends and support networks, and rising poverty have added fuel to a fire the world was already struggling to put out. But we can and we must extinguish child marriage.”

The campaign uses staged wedding photos juxtaposed with images of the girls playing or going to school to illustrate the starkly different futures that girls face when they marry young. None of the girls featured has been in a child marriage.

A premature marriage brings constraint, isolation from friends, and an abrupt end to any chance of an education or a career.

Enabling access to education is an effective way to guard against child marriage, and, in the long term, also works to alleviate the poverty that often drives girls into such unions. Lauri wants to be a paediatrician when she grows up, and says that, with a professional job, she will be able to support her parents.

Fracieli wants to be a lawyer, but recognises that she won’t be able to achieve this if she has to drop out of school to look after children.

Trish is 14, and lives in Bangladesh. She describes what it is like to see her peers married. “When I walk past their homes with books and a school bag, it hurts me to see girls my age instead washing dishes and providing service for their in-laws.”

Tigist Gizachew/Compassion InternationalMart, 13, Ethiopia

Trish explains how some girls want to get married young, as they see it as an escape and a social accolade, but she warns them against this. “How will someone who is young and just starting life be able to handle family matters and take care of others? Now is their time to be playful and enjoy the joys of life.”

Asked what message she would share about child marriage, Trish responds: “I would ask all the guardians not to give their child’s hand in marriage.” Young teenagers face many dangers to their health during pregnancy and childbirth, and getting married so young makes them especially vulnerable to domestic abuse.


MART, a 13-year-old from Ethiopia, agrees. She took part in the photo project because she wants to encourage parents not to allow their daughters to marry so young: “I hope to change the belief of parents who let their daughters pass through early marriage, and to let the community know that girls shouldn’t marry young.”

Mart attends a community run by a local church and supported by Compassion. The director of the centre, Letera Alemayheu, says that there are many pressures on girls to marry early, and girls are often unaware of the consequences until it is too late.

Yrahisa Mateo/Compassion InternationalLauri, 13, Dominican Republic

At a Compassion centre in Brazil, there is a girls’ group, Jasmine Flower. “Our role is to be there to encourage their dreams and show a new path,” Claudeane Mendes, a tutor at the centre, says. “But it’s not always easy to fight against so many other influences out there. . .

“We want to show them what they will leave behind when they make decisions at the wrong time. As a result, the girls trust us and call us when they need advice or are going through difficult times. They talk and share their feelings with us, because they know that there is often no time for that at home.”

Yolane, 14, is one of the children who uses the centre. “The volunteers talk about many things, like dating, periods, pregnancy, and other women’s issues,” she says. She is not sure what she wants to be when she grows up — she used to want to be a vet, but is less certain now. But there is one thing she is sure of: “I don’t want to think about marriage until the distant future.”

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