Why this? Why now?
I probably had the same question as you about the issue of child marriage. Somehow it didn't feel as scandalous as female genital mutilation or girls dying of AIDS. But when I had breakfast with Leslie Calman, the vice president of the International Center for Research on Women, it was obvious this was the biggest untold story affecting girls and women around the world.
Early marriage is where it all begins, Leslie told me. It's the root of the powerlessness of women. In that moment when a girl or very young woman is given away in marriage, her life is essentially over. She can choose nothing for herself ever again. At that moment when she is given to a future she didn't ask for, her cycle of powerlessness, and often poverty, begins. Yet no one, Leslie told me, in the mainstream media or on network television has done any serious work on this issue.
Every year, 50 million girls get married off around the world. But what if all of those girls were able to finish school instead? Imagine how that could help move a country up from poverty.
I felt let down by my fellow mothers around the world. I expected more from them. I asked Leslie, why would these mothers do this to their daughters?
There was a tone in Leslie's calm voice that made me think she had been here before.
Maria, she said, just imagine for a second what these moms have before them. You have absolutely nothing to choose from. You have absolutely no options for your daughter because you can't even send her to school. There are no schools for girls in these small villages so these girls remain locked into the custom of the-way-it's-always-been-done-before. And it's the girls who pay the price for not having options.
And then Leslie paused and gave me a very important reality check. Anyways, Maria, it's mostly the dads who make these decisions. Not the moms. They are powerless former child brides themselves. It's the dads who often give these girls away.
Seven months later, with a generous grant from the Nike Foundation, we were ready to pack our bags for a summer trip around the world. As always when you are a working mom leaving your kids for your job, it was bittersweet.
I spent a week with my family in the Dominican Republic before I took off to shoot the program. I found myself studying my daughter a lot as we hung out on the beach and played innocent games like Monopoly and Marco Polo in the pool. She is nine-and-a-half —the age where in some countries she might be married off. I try to understand in my heart what it must be like to have no options for my daughter. That the only option I have is to pick the husband and family who might be the most welcoming for her as a bride and daughter-in-law. I remember the studies. Child brides are more likely to be abused by their husbands than wives who marry later.
As I say goodbye to my family and fly back to New York, I slowly realize that I will have never been this far away from my family ever in my life. In the shower at home I cry. And then I think about how mothers must feel when they give their daughters in marriage. It's a visceral feeling akin to being separated from your daughter. I imagine they cry just like I do.
All-Woman Crew in a Man's World
On our first leg of the journey, we fly from JFK to Paris. There, we connect to Niamey, the capital of Niger. That first evening, we arrive in a very slow-paced small city. We slept well and took off at 6 a.m. for a 12-hour trip east to the city of Maradi. At one point off the side of the one main road in all of Niger, we saw a giraffe eating leaves for breakfast.
Twelve hours later, we arrive at the Emir of Gobir's house. He is the tribal king of a huge swath of land that extends beyond Niger. The Emir is a well-educated, well-respected man who carries a tremendous amount of influence in the small towns of this vast region. Over the past few years, the Emir has taken on the issue of early marriage. He holds village meetings and has a motorcycle brigade that travels around and intervenes when they hear about child weddings.
At the welcome ceremony
We are welcomed in the traditional fashion for guests of the Emir. The queen mother, the spiritual guide of the village, is seated next to drummers and dancers who are dressed in cloth covered in cowry shells. The Emir welcomes us to his very humble palace and offers us Cokes and bottled water as we get to know each other. It gives me a chance to get my French going.
The next morning we return to set up the interview and I watch as my entire female crew unloads pounds and pounds of gear into the home. The little girls watch us curiously. The boys, too.
No one makes a big deal about it, though it can't help but stand out. We are an all-woman crew and we are doing this on our own. The men must wait for us to be ready. They must follow the orders of my producer, Amy, and my shooter, Mary Olive. The women and girls of the village watch us as we move like the empowered women we are through their village. I try to imagine what they are thinking...
Meeting the Girls
I realize that the first people I see crying in Niger are the men. The Emir of Gobir had summoned a town hall meeting on early marriage and people were asked to come forward and tell their stories.
A tall man with deep-set eyes wearing a tunic and a colorful skullcap stood up and took the microphone, maybe the first time in his life he had ever addressed a crowd like this. He talked quietly about his daughter. She was 13 when he married her off. She got pregnant and almost died during childbirth because she was too young and too small to be giving birth. She got a fistula and is now incontinent; no one wants to get near her because of her smell. He had to sell everything to get some medicine for her. He choked back tears in front of her fellow devout Muslim brothers. He blamed this all on giving her away in marriage when she was too young.
Later that same day I interviewed Ya-Hya, who heads up the motorcycle brigades that go out to intervene and prevent illegal child weddings in the small villages around Maradi. His eyes welled up. Then he explained it makes him cry when he thinks about the girls whose lives are over in that moment of a child wedding.
One young girl who was saved from an early marriage, Soueba, didn't cry when we spoke. She said that the day her mother told her she wouldn't be married off was the happiest day in her entire life. She was so happy she didn't sleep all night. And then she got very stern and said what must have been hard to say: If a daughter could hit a father, that is what she would have done for him trying to marry her off.
With the Emir of Gobir
I loved the smiles of all the children I met, especially the girls. But, the most difficult part of Niger was being at the hospital in Niamey with Habi, who had recently gotten out of surgery for her fistula.
It was a hard interview. Physically, we were right in front of each other and yet light years away in experience. I asked Habi, what in her biggest dreams —when she thinks of all of the women she has seen on TV, who work in offices —out of all of them, who would she love to see herself as? I asked Habi to dream that impossible dream.
Habi had the hardest time answering. It made me so sad. It just broke my heart.
Later she said she dreamed of being able to have a little stall and sell things in her village.
An Illegal Wedding
Being invited to a child wedding in a small village outside of Jodphur was something I had been hoping for since our work started. We were driving off at 8:30 p.m. into the pitch black night. Alana, who is an amazing shooter, was wearing a hidden camera. Our village contact was with us and when we got to the village, he, of course, did all of the talking.
There was one light in one courtyard but other than that we could not see each other's faces for 4 hours —talking and laughing though we did not speak the same language and could not see each other's faces!
Maria in village of Binawas
As it turns out, the child weddings happen when someone in the village dies because that way they can combine the funeral and the wedding, and the town only has to cook for one event. They don't have enough food for two separate parties. There was a lot of excitement and a lot of ritual. But this was a custom that, though beautiful and though centuries old, was putting girls into precarious and powerless futures.
Around midnight I was finally invited into the small compound for the wedding. I was in awe - it was as if I had just gone back in history 100 years. These were the same songs, the same moves, the same words that had been going on for centuries.
It was a privilege to be invited to share this with strangers. But my heart was breaking. The little girls, probably just 3 and 4 years old, cried throughout. One in particular was weeping and scared. It was midnight, and she was undoubtedly tired and hot with all of the bride's clothing. But maybe deep down she was crying because she just didn't want to be a bride.
The next day I returned to the village where the children were married. This time they let us take pictures of the brides. They let me carry one, still dressed in her marriage outfit, her black traditional kohl eye makeup a tiny bit smudged. The little girls were happy to see me. I was happy to not see them in tears. I just couldn't believe I was carrying a bride in my arms.
That night, before we went out to dinner with the director of the Veerni School for girls, I watched the movie "Water" in my hotel room. The last scene is of a child widow being carried to a train. I thought about carrying the child bride, and cried. The sadness I felt in my heart that night was almost overwhelming. I often feel powerful in my work as a journalist. At that moment, though, I felt powerless in the face of so many emotions.
A Journey's End; A Mission's Beginning
After we had finished shooting in Santiago Atitlan in Guatemala, I was sad that this project was coming to an end. In my wildest dreams I would love to have Habi and Mamta and Rosa and Sunita and Brenda all with me in New York City someday. On the plane ride back I realized that Rosa from Guatemala was not so far from New York City!
In the end, it was Rosa who did make it to the United States. By some incredible stroke of luck and amazing goodwill on the part of the U.S. Embassy, Rosa arrived in Washington, D.C., on Oct 8, 2007.
The next night at the National Press Club, Rosa, who only six months ago was cleaning hotel rooms in her village, was addressing a crowd of influential people in D.C. She told everyone how this was a dream of hers —to be out in the world and listened to. Rosa is only 21 years old.
Unlike my daughter, Rosa does not live in a world of endless options. She told me her father had given her "permiso" to come. But the power in her family is shifting. Her father knows that her daughter has now seen the world and can teach him important lessons as well.
Maybe the sweetest photo I have of the trip is of me and Rosa and Liya Kebede, the famed international supermodel, who joined us at the National Press Club for a reception for the film. Liya has started her own foundation to work with girls and women in Africa.
So there we were: Liya Kebede from Ethiopia and Rosa from Santiago Atitlan and me the New Yorker via Chicago and Mexico City. The mission that brings us together is to give all young girls a chance to own their voice, just like the chance the three of us have.