Rathia, an Iraqi woman, married off her eldest daughter at 15, her second-eldest at 16, ages at which the girls did not even know the meaning of sex and what to expect on their wedding nights. Rathia was so uncomfortable discussing the subject that she left it to girls’ husbands, teachers and friends to explain. The media coverage of child marriage often suggests oppressive cultural practices or unkind parents. Prior to meeting Rathia, I always viewed child marriage with a sense of anger at the injustice girls endure. But then I learned about the dynamics that impacted Rathia’s decision. She did not marry off her teenage daughters out of cultural tradition, or for any lack of love for them. Rather, her decision stemmed from poverty and her commitment to ensuring that all of her daughters finish their college educations.
Rathia is a widow whose husband was killed by Sunni-Shia violence a few years ago. She was left to care for six children: four girls and two boys. Out of fear for their lives, Rathia packed up, carried all that she could in a small truck and left Baghdad to become a displaced person in another province. She suddenly found herself with no home, no money, and no partner to help fulfill the promise she and her husband had made to each other — that each of their children would go to university.
Rathia confronted a stark choice: hunger and taking her children out of school because she literally did not have any money to sustain them, or marrying them to men who would promise to send each daughter to finish her education. Rathia chose the latter. Her daughters, who were very clear about their sudden poverty and their circumstances, did not resist the decision, but went along with it to ease the financial burden on their mother, and for the opportunity to finish school. This is a story of maternal love.
When I met Rathia I couldn’t hide my shock or judgment at her decision to marry the girls off. “Why would you do that?” I asked, emotionally. She was not defensive, but explained her logic calmly. “I had to make choices and [set] my priorities so that they finish their education, so that they get out of poverty and have a better life.” By the time she explained the level of that poverty — the lack of food, the hardship of her circumstances as a displaced widow — I realized I had been looking at child marriage from an intellectual, judgmental distance, rather than putting myself in Rathia’s shoes.
This is not to say that all child marriages are agreed to because of poverty or severe circumstances, nor do I sanction the practice as it’s carried out in many parts of the world. But I learned from Rathia that I had been dehumanizing the issue rather than asking what I would have done, in her position, to set a beloved daughter on the most promising path available.
Rathia’s daughters, who joined our conversations at one point, spoke of their marriages. One of them was holding her malnourished-looking 10-month-old baby, and was pregnant with another. But she was indeed attending business management college. The other one was pregnant and attending nursing school. As for the eldest of the three daughters (the youngest is unmarried), she could not have a baby, and had decided that she did not like school, so she dropped out. The men the girls married appeared to be generally decent. Each had fulfilled his promise to his mother-in-law, ensuring that his wife had the opportunity to attend college. The husbands were willing to suspend their own educations and work in menial jobs so their wives could study.
I am not yet convinced that Rathia’s hope, her daughters’ compliance, and the best intentions of the men they married can break the cycle of poverty for these teenage brides. But I am convinced that Rathia’s sole motive was love and dedication to her children. Mostly, I am convinced that in order for the discussion of child marriage to evolve at the global level, the impact of poverty on the practice needs to be better understood.
Zainab Salbi is a humanitarian, author, and media commentator who has dedicated herself to women’s rights and freedom. At the age of 23, she founded Women for Women International—a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. She is the author of several books including the best-selling memoir Between Two Worlds; Escape From Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World who travels around the Middle East and North Africa and files reports on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. She’s developing a new talk show that will deal with similar issues. For more information on Salbi’s work visit www.zainabsalbi.com.