What you need to know:
- There is no way ‘marriage’ and ‘child’ can exist in the same sentence.
- Every girl must enjoy the right to parental care and education. We cannot afford to violate their sexual and reproductive health rights and subject them to dehumanising sexual experiences.
Joyce gave me a whole new perspective on the issue of child marriage when she came for consultation at the sexology clinic. I had just written an article on the subject, condemning the intention by our members of parliament to reduce the age of consent to 16 from 18. That debate ultimately ended when the MPs backed down.
But for Joyce, it was the personal experiences that such girls go through that she was concerned about. She was 35 years old and in her second marriage. Her first marriage happened when she was 13 years old and in class seven.
Her parents organised to have her married off. Negotiations happened, dowry was paid and a few days later she was handed over to a man she had never met, in his early 20s.
“That was the beginning of the nightmare that you never highlighted in your article,” Joyce said, holding a handkerchief to her eyes. Harmful culture takes little cognisance of the humanity of children married off so that the families can enrich themselves with dowry. It cares little about the innocent young souls that will be wrecked by these early, often violent sexual encounters.
As her parents packed her clothes to send her off to her ‘husband’, she asked if she could carry her books. They allowed her. But was informed that she would no longer go to school. “I asked my mother if I could say bye to my teachers and friends in school and if I could be coming back home to play netball and volleyball with them,” Joyce said. That request infuriated her parents. Did she not understand that she was now a woman – a wife who could not go playing with children?
The sexual experiences were the most painful. Joyce was a virgin and her genital organs were not fully developed. She was completely ignorant of sex. She had not imagined the agony that awaited her the moment she entered her new home.
“They made me sleep with him in his bed,” Joyce explained. “I went to bed fully dressed but he tore my clothes and raped me ruthlessly as I cried and wailed.”
The rapes would become the order of the day. Joyce dreaded the nights. Each sexual encounter left her with excruciating pain, which began in her thighs and spread to her back. One night she made the mistake of pushing him away. She received the beating of her life.
“As I cried helplessly from the pain of his slaps, he still went ahead and raped me,” Joyce lamented.
In the day, the older women mentored Joyce on home chores. She tilled the land, milked the cows, cleaned her house, and cooked. “There was no time to read my books,” she explained. “Later I found them torn and being used to make tobacco cigarettes which the men smoked as women prepared evening meals.
In brief, what Joyce was saying is that there is no way ‘marriage’ and ‘child’ can exist in the same sentence. Marriage is a legally binding relationship between two adults who have the capacity to consent to it. It was never meant to bring agony to children.
“If having sex with a child is an offense, you cannot logically sanitise the offense and say that someone has married a child; you can only say someone has kidnapped a child and is sexually molesting them in the name of marriage,” Joyce explained.
I agreed. Every girl must enjoy the right to parental care and education. We cannot afford to violate their sexual and reproductive health rights and subject them to dehumanising sexual experiences.
Joyce ran away from the child marriage. She was rescued by an NGO and taken back to school. She completed her education and became a teacher. She got married thereafter out of choice.
The experiences of child marriage however remained engraved in Joyce’s mind. She did not enjoy sex. Her coming to the sexology clinic was to seek help on how to reverse her sexual history. I prescribed sex therapy and coaching, known forms of treatment for this kind of problem.