This week I have been in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, attending a conference of 480 people from all over 70 countries that focus on ending the practice of child marriage. The UN estimates that about 12m girls each year are married before their 18th birthday, often to men decades older than them. Child brides are usually expected or forced to stop school and become pregnant immediately. This traps them in a cycle of poverty. Unable to finish school their employment prospects are poor, as young mothers their ability to work is hampered by child care responsibilities. Child marriage is also correlated with high rates of death in childbirth as the girls are often not physically mature themselves. It is also correlated with high rates of domestic violence, abuse and HIV. It quite literally robs girls of their future. So why do parents do it? Often it is a long established cultural tradition that is not questioned. Often the parents feel they have no option to keep their daughters from even worse harm. It is no coincidence that child marriage rates have increased hugely in refugee camps where parents struggle to keep their daughters safe. Sometimes marrying them to the man in the tent next door can seem the lessor of two evils.
The Girls Not Brides conference brought together hundreds of organisations from around the world to share their strategies for how to stop the practice of child marriage. One of the common themes from many of the organisations there was that there needs to be an alternative for these parents. There needs to be a way that their daughters can contribute to the family income. If they can earn money to help support the family, the need to give or sometimes sell them into marriage greatly reduces. Simply put, these girls need jobs and to get them they need skills. In our small way at Cork Yogis we help girls learn skills and earn money by our partnership with Destiny Reflection in Kolkata, India. Every mat you buy – a portion of the profits go to support Destiny’s literacy, numeracy and sewing courses for women and girls who have experienced another form of abuse – slavery. And every bag you buy for your lovely cork mat is made by these girls. In our small way, we are empowering these girls to make their future much brighter than their past.