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When Child Marriage is a step up

She looks like a little girl playing dress-ups, with a big adult sari wrapped around her small, childish frame.

Last week Paul & I visited a family we hadn’t seen in a while. Ria is 15 and since her mother died she’s been caring for her little sis Shanti, who has Cerebral Palsy. They are simply beautiful girls. The red-light area is no place for them. We’ve been working with others to find boarding schools/homes for them.

As we sip our cups of chai in their tiny 2m x 3m room, I suddenly notice Ria has red powder in the parting of her hair. Strange, only married women wear that. Then I notice that she is wearing a sari. Only married women wear those too. She looks like a little girl playing dress-ups, with a big adult sari wrapped around her small, childish frame.

Then it hits me. Ria has been married off. I sit in stunned silence, before finally asking her Aunty. ‘Has Ria got married?’ ‘Yes’, she beams, ‘just a few days ago’. I ask, ‘Is he a good guy? Are you happy?’ ‘Yes, he’s a good boy, outside the red-light area with a good job. Yes, I’m happy. Why?’ she asks me. ‘Are you not happy?’ Of course I’m not happy. Child marriage is a bad idea. It robs girls of their childhood. But from her Auntie’s perspective the only alternative for Ria was to join the trade. In the face of child prostitution, child marriage seems like the lesser of two evils. So I say I’m happy they found a good boy & force a smile. But I notice Ria is not smiling.

As we leave, tears well up in my eyes. My chest aches. I grieve for Ria. For her lost childhood. For her lost education. For her future without choices. Most of all I grieve that in places like Bow Bazar, child marriage is actually a step up from the hellhole of forced prostitution. It’s a stark reminder of just how oppressed the people really are.