Child marriage is still a major reality in Liberia, and all the more during times of crisis, such as now.
For many poor families in Liberia, the financial strain of supporting their children can be overwhelming. One woman in Melekie told me that, as a child, her family ate one meal a day – if at all. This meal was eaten around 8:00 at night, since her parents had to work that day, and use their daily pay to buy the food. When they got home from work and buying food, only then could her mother begin to prepare dinner. As a small child, she remembered trying to stay awake at night even when she was so tired, because she knew that if she fell asleep, her portion would get eaten, and then she would not eat again until the next night.
The desperation of this hand-to-mouth living drives many parents toward drastic solutions. Usually, the first thing to go is their children’s schooling, since it requires fees. Even before the COVID19 outbreak, over 50% of all Liberian students did not complete primary school, mostly as a result of this type of poverty. Once children are out of school, they may be put to work or trafficked illegally as laborers.
Another common practice parents resort to in these circumstances is early marriage of their daughters for a “bride price.” Over a third of girls under the age of 18 in Liberia are forced into early marriage in order to alleviate financial burdens on their parents. In some cases, the men they have to marry do not even “pay” for them with money. The “zinc brides,” as they were known, were girls whose fathers sold them into marriage in exchange for pieces of zinc – the corrugated metal used as roofing for some cheaper homes.
This practice was prevalent during and after the Liberian Civil War: a time of conflict and unrest, not dissimilar from the current pandemic. The uncertainty of this present moment will most surely lead to an increase in child marriage, since it is seen as a method of easing financial strain.
The Liberian Children Representative Forum confirms that “gender inequality and the low value placed on girls underlie the practice and in most instances, child marriages result [in] teenage pregnancy.” These early/forced marriages are not simply statistics of human rights violations, they represent the ruined hopes and dreams of hundreds of thousands of girls who were denied their childhood, education, opportunity, and free will.
Our women’s home, Lydia House Liberia, will be a safe and hope-filled alternative for girls from poor families who are unable to bear financial hardship. We will offer community support to families, and a free home and education to their daughters – to help them break the cycle of need that can lead to child marriage. For young women who were forced into early marriage, we will offer the opportunity to complete their education in an accelerated program, combined with vocational training.
We want every girl to realize her potential. Partner with us to complete the construction of our women’s home so that women and girls can access the opportunities they deserve!