When I was a little girl, my favorite activity at my grandmother’s house was to shuffle upstairs, don the old dresses and shoes she kept for pretend play, pick out some costume jewelry, apply cast-off make-up, and pretend I was the princess of her old, pre-Civil War home.
If I was lucky, my cousin Becky would be at the house, and I could always convince her to dress up with me.
She would wear an old grey sweater from my grandfather’s closet, faded brown loafers, my great-grandfather’s bowler hat, and a penciled-on goatee. She was 10 years my senior, but she would pretend to be the dapper gentleman whose arm I would hold.
As a small child of 5, I saw this activity as playful, and I saw her as the strong, caring, funny, beautiful, smart, and independent woman I wanted to be.
My memories of childhood are care-free and joyful, but my childhood is an example of everything this young girl’s childhood is not. Although she is also adorned in a beautiful gown, bangles, and make-up that her sisters had applied, she is not playing a game or admiring the qualities of the boy to her right.
This little girl is attending a ceremony – her own wedding day.
Image credit: National Geographic
This girl’s story – along with the stories of many other girls who are wed too early – is a phenomenon that is not getting enough attention on the world stage. Although the youngest brides, like this girl, are kept within their natal family until puberty, they are still being wed and used as chattel. These young souls are being left with no choice but to bear children, endure slave-like conditions, and shoulder the brunt of a male-dominated culture.
With India’s rising infanticides and abortions of mostly girl babies, the marriages of younger and younger girls will only get worse. In India’s capital city—Delhi—there are only 866 females for every 1,000 males. The pressure to find and traffic young girls for marriage ceremonies will only increase. Although the story of this five-year-old bride is one of the most shocking on record, child marriage remains common throughout India. In Bihar, India alone, 60% of India’s girls are married by age 18. In addition, many of these girls end up having multiple children by the age of 20 – continuing a cycle of poverty, illiteracy, poor health conditions, and hopelessness that continues to spiral out of control.
The stories of these young brides are being exposed all over the world, but in India, it is the aftermath that is the most shocking. These young girls are often beaten and abused, but the most devastating act is known as bride burning. Some call it dowry death. Whatever name it goes by, the number of young brides dying is horrific: an estimated 22 per day. That works out to about one girl being burned alive every hour in India. (And that’s just the deaths that are reported.) Can you imagine? This breaks my heart so deeply.
A newlywed, Roopa was filled with hope for a happy life with her husband. And then one day, her in-laws poured kerosene on Roopa … and set her on fire. Roopa survived the bride burning — and now she is courageously telling her story. Watch it here:
In some cases, a young bride feels so helpless and hopeless that she will attempt to kill herself. Desperate to escape severe beatings and other forms of abuse, these young brides attempt suicide. The prevalence of these atrocities call for people of hope – they call for a community that can stop this cycle, provide a future of hope, and ensure that each young woman knows she has worth.
Mission India partners are stepping into this role, shining the hope of Christ into the darkness. As trained Christian nationals of India reach into the gap that exists between law and practice, many small villages, remote towns, and struggling people are imagining a different future.
Through the work of Adult Literacy Classes, women who have never been given a chance to read or write are now attaining a fifth grade education in just one year. The result is men who support their wives’ new abilities to work, start businesses, and help with the financial well-being in the home. Through Church Planters, families are learning that men and women are created in God’s image and are loved by Him. This is transforming the way women view themselves and how they are treated by their families. For many, this is the first message of love and redemption they have ever heard. In a land where they have only felt like captives, they are set free. And the third work being done in India is the Children’s Bible Clubs. This program – designed to show all children the love and of God – inspires many young boys and girls to love one another the way Christ loved all mankind.
Girls in India endure psychological, physical, and emotional abuse, and Mission India’s partners are meeting their deepest needs by introducing these girls to Jesus Christ.
Today, I encourage you to reflect on your life when you were five years old … and consider the stories of five-year-olds that are being lived out in other lands. With your prayers, support, and efforts, we can change a story of tragedy into one with a happy ending. With God as the Author, we can write a new chapter in the lives of the young girls of India.