Thursday, March 4, 2010

Ethical Children -- What Can Adults Learn From You?

My Comment #63 NYTimes
New York City
March 4th, 2010
10:48 am

The world is full of ethical children. They go unnoticed. Unsung, ethical children.

Nujood Ali of Yemen, you and other children like you, are among their diverse courageous voices.

Q. What can adults learn from girls like you, Nujood?

Q. Nujood, Can journalists, especially US journalists (even a humane and competent one like Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times) attempt less simplistic explanations about Yemen and the world? At the same time, let it be noted Kristof makes powerful points about investing in children, especially girls and their mothers, rather than in missiles, as the US is prone to do. Kristof makes a powerful argument for going the Bangladesh way, as opposed to the Pakistan way, in terms of investment in women and girls. Of course Muhammad Yunus had a lot to do with influencing Bangladesh's policies of investing in women and girls.

Q. Nujood, Can journalists offer less simplistic explanations of your ethical capacity, when they share the worldview of the US military-corporate complex; operate and are paid for their work, within the broader context of the US military-corporate complex?

Q. Which adults urgently need to learn from you, Nujood, to advance a New Global Ethical order (NGEO)?
Those mainly male pseudo 'traditionalists' who support and even encourage forced marriage of girl children in certain parts of India; subscribe to female-hating patriarchy in the old world order, the Saudi Wahabis who have overrun Pakistan being among the worst contemporary examples; army rapists in the Republic of Congo; plus those cynical politicians and multinationals in the new world order, who control others through the military-corporate complex -- Can these destructive mainly male adults even begin to detect the ethical path you, Nujood and other children have charted?

Chithra Karunakaran
Ethical Democracy As Lived Practice
New York Times copyright
Op-Ed Columnist
Published: March 3, 2010
Divorced Before Puberty
It’s hard to imagine that there have been many younger divorcées — or braver ones — than a pint-size third grader named Nujood Ali.
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Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Nicholas D. Kristof
On the Ground
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Nicholas Kristof addresses reader feedback and posts short takes from his travels.

Nujood is a Yemeni girl, and it’s no coincidence that Yemen abounds both in child brides and in terrorists (and now, thanks to Nujood, children who have been divorced). Societies that repress women tend to be prone to violence.

For Nujood, the nightmare began at age 10 when her family told her that she would be marrying a deliveryman in his 30s. Although Nujood’s mother was unhappy, she did not protest. “In our country it’s the men who give the orders, and the women who follow them,” Nujood writes in a powerful new autobiography just published in the United States this week, “I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced.”

Her new husband forced her to drop out of school (she was in the second grade) because a married woman shouldn’t be a student. At her wedding, Nujood sat in the corner, her face swollen from crying.

Nujood’s father asked the husband not to touch her until a year after she had had her first menstrual period. But as soon as they were married, she writes, her husband forced himself on her.

He soon began to beat her as well, the memoir says, and her new mother-in-law offered no sympathy. “Hit her even harder,” the mother-in-law would tell her son.

Nujood had heard that judges could grant divorces, so one day she sneaked away, jumped into a taxi and asked to go to the courthouse.

“I want to talk to the judge,” the book quotes Nujood as forlornly telling a woman in the courthouse.

“Which judge are you looking for?”

“I just want to speak to a judge, that’s all.”

“But there are lots of judges in this courthouse.”

“Take me to a judge — it doesn’t matter which one!”

When she finally encountered a judge, Nujood declared firmly: “I want a divorce!”

Yemeni journalists turned Nujood into a cause célèbre, and she eventually won her divorce. The publicity inspired others, including an 8-year-old Saudi girl married to a man in his 50s, to seek annulments and divorces.

As a pioneer, Nujood came to the United States and was honored in 2008 as one of Glamour magazine’s “Women of the Year.” Indeed, Nujood is probably the only third grader whom Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has described as “one of the greatest women I have ever seen.”

Nujood’s memoir spent five weeks as the No. 1 best-seller in France. It is being published in 18 other languages, including her own native language of Arabic.

I asked Nujood, now 12, what she thought of her life as a best-selling author. She said the foreign editions didn’t matter much to her, but she was looking forward to seeing it in Arabic. Since her divorce, she has returned to school and to her own family, which she is supporting with her book royalties.

At first, Nujood’s brothers criticized her for shaming the family. But now that Nujood is the main breadwinner, everybody sees things a bit differently. “They’re very nice to her now,” said Khadija al-Salami, a filmmaker who mentors Nujood and who translated for me. “They treat her like a queen.”

Yemen is one of my favorite countries, with glorious architecture and enormously hospitable people. Yet Yemen appears to be a time bomb. It is a hothouse for Al Qaeda and also faces an on-and-off war in the north and a secessionist movement in the south. It’s no coincidence that Yemen is also ranked dead last in the World Economic Forum’s global gender gap index.

There are a couple of reasons countries that marginalize women often end up unstable.

First, those countries usually have very high birth rates, and that means a youth bulge in the population. One of the factors that most correlates to social conflict is the proportion of young men ages 15 to 24.

Second, those countries also tend to practice polygamy and have higher death rates for girls. That means fewer marriageable women — and more frustrated bachelors to be recruited by extremists.

So educating Nujood and giving her a chance to become a lawyer — her dream — isn’t just a matter of fairness. It’s also a way to help tame the entire country.

Consider Bangladesh. After it split off from Pakistan, Bangladesh began to educate girls in a way that Pakistan has never done. The educated women staffed an emerging garment industry and civil society, and those educated women are one reason Bangladesh is today far more stable than Pakistan.

The United States last month announced $150 million in military assistance for Yemen to fight extremists. In contrast, it costs just $50 to send a girl to public school for a year — and little girls like Nujood may prove more effective than missiles at defeating terrorists.

Daily Mail copyright
The illegal child brides of India


Last updated at 09:21 07 June 2006

Mass ceremony

Cruel custom: An under-age girl is married off in one of Rajasthan's many hundreds of mass ceremonies
Forced to marry at six, mothers by 12, their bodies destroyed by 20, SUE LLOYD-ROBERTS finds the unspeakable abuse of India's illegal child brides is worse than ever:

When I was getting married, I had no idea what was going on, says Manemma. "I was only six and all I knew was that I had to leave home. I cried and cried and said I didn't want to, but they made me."

Manemma sits forlornly, surrounded by family members, on the floor of their two-room house in a village in the Indian Andhra Pradesh. Dressed in a bright red dress and with her plaits, she looks even younger than her 11 years.

I look accusingly at Manemma's father, Ghandrappa. How could he let such a thing happen to his daughter? Unembarrassed, he returns my stare, shrugs his shoulders and answers in a matter-of-fact tone. "It's the way things happen here," he says. "It's the tradition. Girls are married at a very young age, regardless of the age of their husbands, and they're expected to adjust to the situation."

Thousands of children get married in India every year, and as soon as they reach puberty, they are expected to conceive. According to the census of 2001, 300,000 girls under the age of 15 had given birth, some for the second time. Now, five years later, the number could be as many as half a million. With their bodies underdeveloped and often malnourished, early childbirth can be fatal. Some 100,000 mothers and one million babies die in India every year.

Manemma's marriage ended in disaster, before she could have a baby. After a couple of years, her 20-year-old husband wanted a more sexually mature woman and sent her packing. "How did your husband treat you?" I ask Manemma. I did not want to ask her directly whether he tried to have sex with her. Doctors had told me of the frequent cases of rape of prepubescent girls in her situation, but it is not a question you can ask in India.

Manemma squirms with embarrassment. "I don't want to talk about my husband," she says. She is still traumatised by the experience and shakes her head when I ask her if she will ever get married again. Throughout India, during the May festival of Akshaya Tritiya, the auspicious day in the year for weddings, streets resound to the cacophony of steel bands, firecrackers and women's voices singing as they prepare young brides to meet their grooms.

Behind closed doors in the town of Jaipur, two sisters, aged 11 and 13, Anjali and Vinisha, bow their heads as family members anoint their heads and limbs with a mixture of yoghurt and turmeric. Their hands and feet have already been covered with swirling patterns of henna. "Of course I'm nervous, wouldn't you be?" the older one says, irritated and frightened about what is about to happen to her. "We haven't even seen our husbands, let alone met them."

She explains how she loves her home, her sisters and her school, and now all that is to come to an end. "There's no chance of going to school at my in-laws' place. I'll just cook and do the housework. Nothing else. I shall have to cover my head with a veil and do whatever my mother-in-law says."

Child weddings are illegal in India. The Child Marriage Restraint Act, passed during British rule in 1929, specified that a girl must be 18 and a boy 21 before they can wed. Since independence in 1947, however, Indian governments have done little to implement the rule. During the wedding season, hundreds of mass ceremonies involving children as young as four take place across the country.

Large, garishly coloured wedding marquees litter the desert landscape, in full view and in defiance of the law. The state of Rajasthan has the highest number of child marriages in India. In the government buildings in Jodhpur, I find a handful of staff in the dusty Department for Child Welfare office, waiting for the phone to ring.

They have installed a hotline so that informers can tip them off about illegal ceremonies. It has not rung once during this year's wedding season. The director, Champala Suthar, explains that the wedding organisers are clever. "They are always one jump ahead of us. They announce a wedding and then change the date, or the venue. And Rajasthan is a big place. The police cannot patrol the area. Maybe if they had enough cars, they could stop the weddings, but it will take time."

Until then they must rely on a telephone that never rings. There is another problem, explains the local landowner who accompanies me to a mass wedding close to his estate. He claims that the landowners still rule in Rajasthan and that the area around his land is 'no go' for the police.

When we arrive at the wedding tent, the women are singing as they carry the brides' dowries, wrapped in silk carpets, towards the grooms' enclosure. In the brides' tent, a six-year-old child bride, dressed like a doll in crimson and gold, stares with kohl-encircled eyes, uncomprehending as the events unfold around her.

An older girl scowls at her mother and at me and then pulls her veil down over her face. The older girls in the tent know what is going on but they are helpless. Up to 15 girls, many under-age, will be married here today.

By the end of it, they will leave their homes for ever and move to their husbands' houses to begin a term of slavery to their mother-in-law and then, once they mature, a life of repeated pregnancies and unremitting childcare; if, that is, they survive their first pregnancy.

India has signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, with all the promises of the right to education and freedom from abuse which the Convention entails. Why, therefore, is this child abuse accepted on such a wide scale?

Some states are attempting to confront the problem by insisting that all marriages are registered. To register a marriage, the bride must produce a birth certificate to prove she is over 18.

But nothing is that simple in India, where the gulf between the passing of a law and its implementation can be a wide one. In Andhra Pradesh, four years after the law was passed, registration officers have still not been appointed at village level and, as elsewhere in the country, the police turn a blind eye.

In the Warangal district, three hours' drive from the capital Hyderabad, Meena Akashi, a local mother and activist, decided she had had enough of watching young girls in her area being abused by mothers-in-law and husbands alike. Walking from village to village, she collected the names of 60 girls who were about to be married and took them to the local police station and asked the inspector in charge to stop the weddings.

I asked Inspector Mogili Durgaiah how many weddings he had stopped and how many priests or parents he had arrested? "None," he replied. "You see, these people are illiterate and they do not understand the law." It is an astonishingly softly-softly approach for the police to take.

Michel Saint Lot, head of UNICEF for southern India, explains. "The police themselves are part of the tradition. This is the culture in which they are raised.

"They are not going to turn on their own families and tell them that a centuries-old custom is wrong. They need to be educated and trained in this matter."

But until this education and training can take place, what hope is there for the thousands of young girls who continue to be sacrificed on the altar of child marriages?

At the Mahatma Gandhi Hospital in Hyderabad, a 15-year-old is rushed into casualty. She is having convulsions and is writhing in pain. "She offers a classic example of what can go wrong if you have a baby too young," Dr Shailaja says. "She has high blood pressure and, because her body is not yet fully developed, her pelvic passage is too small and the baby will get stuck. We shall have to carry out a Caesarean."

The girl travelled 200 kilometres to get to the hospital. She is lucky. The majority of mothers give birth at home and, with similar problems, both mother and baby would die.

The doctor passes through the neo-natal ward, pointing to the underweight, sickly babies born of undernourished, undeveloped children. She stops at the bed of a 15-year-old who is cradling a tiny baby.

"Look what happens if you have babies too young," she says and asks the mother to stick out her tongue. "Look, she's anaemic, most of them are. And look at the baby - only four pounds in weight. He'll be lucky to survive." Fortunately, the mother cannot understand the doctor's English.

When we move on to the outpatients' department, I ask the collection of teenagers who have come for check-ups whether they had been told of the dangers of early childbirth. They all shake their heads. And contraception? I get the same response.

We pass on to the gynaecological ward. Here, women as young as 23 have hysterectomies. Their bodies, ravaged by multiple pregnancies, are already worn out.

When they get home, they will be unable to conceive and will be too weak to work in the fields. More often than not, their husbands will discard them.

But, abandoned by their parents, the police and the lawmakers alike, the children of India are beginning to fight back. I met 14-year-old Jengri as she was addressing a group of younger school children. They listened with rapt concentration as the tiny, four-foot-something girl told them her life story.

She was married at the age of 11 to an alcoholic truck driver more than 20 years her senior. Three days after the wedding, he was killed in a traffic accident. Because the wedding was never registered, she received no compensation.

As a widow, albeit 11 years old, it appeared her life was effectively over - until she decided to change from victim to activist. She now lectures other children and their parents on the perils of early marriages to older men.

Surely the parents do not want to hear what she has to say, I ask? Her expression is anxious but determined. "Of course, I get scared when I talk to parents but I steel myself, telling myself that I must do it. I tell them my story and I hope that it will change their minds," she says.

Suddenly, she breaks into a huge smile. "You see, I thought my life was over but now I have a cause and I have a new life."

Jengri is one small voice in a vast country. But it is a beginning. Unless more people speak out, thousands more girls will suffer trauma, rape and the possibility of death in childbirth in the name of time-honoured tradition.

Sue Lloyd-Roberts' film on India's Child Brides will be shown tonight on Newsnight on BBC2.

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