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This woman was a child bride... now a Co Down man is trying to save others from a similar fate

If the abduction of 234 schoolgirls in Nigeria wasn't shocking enough, their Islamist extremist kidnappers' threat to sell them into slavery appalled the world. Gavin Weston, who works in prisons here, tells Ivan Little how he is determined to stop the scourge of forced marriage and female genital mutilation.

It's a shocking scene played out thousands of times every year in one of the world's most shameful yet least well-known obscenities as a young girl, barely in her teens, is rudely awakened from her slumbers by her father who heartlessly hands her over to another man who's going to sell her on to the highest bidder.

The confused child will probably never see her family again, she'll more than likely have a baby of her own inside a year and the chances are that she may also have been the victim of female genital mutilation (FGM), a shocking and life-threatening circumcision or cutting procedure carried out on upwards of 140 million girls in 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East.

The current crisis in Nigeria has catapulted the treatment of young girls into the public consciousness, but child marriage is far more prevalent than most people here could ever imagine. According to the latest estimates, up to 30,000 child marriages take place around the world every day, with some of the 'brides' as young as five or six.

One organisation, Girls Not Brides, has claimed that 14 million girls are married before their 18th birthdays every year.

Campaigners say the practice is child abuse, slavery and a violation of human rights but it isn't confined to Africa and is commonplace in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Turkey where it's reckoned there are over 250,000 child brides.

It's also a dilemma for the authorities in the UK and the USA too, but it's more difficult to identify because families often take their children back to the countries where their roots lie to marry them off.

And it's all the harder to combat because child marriage and FGM are so ingrained in foreign cultures that people in the UK won't get involved because they believe that they're none of their business, though it's often pointed out that Gandhi argued that just because it was part of the tradition didn't make it right.

Other world leaders such as the late Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu have supported Girls Not Brides and a Northern Irish man is helping with the campaign to outlaw child marriage. He's Gavin Weston, from Co Down, who has also written an acclaimed novel based on it. But he followed that up with a visit to Tanzania where he took part in a conference organised by the Children's Dignity Forum (CDF) and talked with young girls who had been forced into wedlock and into childbirth.

Weston first became aware of child marriage after he worked as a volunteer with an American relief agency in one of the world's poorest countries, Niger.

On his return home he decided to sponsor a six-year-old girl called Ramatu and he and his children corresponded with her regularly. But just before her 12th birthday the letters stopped arriving and he discovered that Ramatu had been married off.

Which came as even more of surprise to Weston, a former arts correspondent with the Sunday Times, because Ramatu had been part of a non-governmental programme which he thought would guarantee her safety and security.

Weston's research revealed that parents were selling off their children for the equivalent of two years' income and he was appalled at the scale of forced marriage, but he never found out what happened to Ramatu. He knows it's possible she may have been sent hundreds of miles from her home and may never be in contact with her family again.

Weston based the main fictional character of the novel which he wrote about child marriage on Ramatu and he called the book Harmattan after a strong trade wind which blows across the Sahara desert. The book has been well-received by the critics, even in places like Turkey, and he hopes the publication will enlighten more people about the scourge of child marriage.

Weston also teamed up with Forward, a campaigning charity in London which has been striving for 16 years to safeguard the sexual and reproductive health and rights of African girls and women.

The writer, who also works in jails here with the Prison Arts Foundation, is an ambassador for the organisation. And that's what took him to Tanzania for a conference about child marriage.

What he heard was horrific. "But I also discovered that a number of girls who had escaped from their marriages have been helped to re-build their lives through a series of programmes organised by the Children's Dignity Forum," he says.

Late last year over 400 girls aged between nine and 15 in the Mara region of Tanzania sought refuge from FGM in a centre operated by the CDF and Forward, but millions of others aren't able to escape the procedure which is often carried out by older women with no medical knowledge because the belief is that it will ward off untoward sexual activity.

Seven of the young girls who took part in the conference had children of their own. And they were determined that they wouldn't be forced into marriages or mutilated.

One of them said: "My daughter will never undergo FGM. All I want is for her to go to school. I don't want her to be married like the way it happened to me."

Most of the girls said they had been terrified as they were forced into marriage. Many of the men they wed were significantly older and had other wives before them and others after them.

One girl said that her uncle had forced her into marriage when she was only 12 to a man of 40 who forced her to have sex and she was so young she didn't realise it led to pregnancy.

Weston also learnt that the girls were routinely subjected to violence by their husbands who bizarrely argued that it was a sign of their love for their partners.

One girl said: "Some women think that if the husband doesn't beat them up, it means they don't love them. And it also happens to the kids. They get punished if they do something wrong but not in a small way. One father took sticks with thorns in them to his daughter because she had returned an hour after her curfew."

After listening to the girls, Weston made a vow to them – that he would fight for the rest of his life to stop child marriage.

He also met Chief Nkosi Nzamane, the so-called king of kings of the Ngoni people in part of the eastern province of Zambia where drought, floods, poverty and diseases like Aids and malaria are common along with illiteracy and unemployment. The chief is actively trying to tackle what he calls the menace of parents marrying off their children at an early age, something which was once a practice among his own people.

But he said: "I understand about the health of someone and when girls as young as 15 or even 10 are married, their bodies are not ready to carry a child and with under-developed pelvises we experience a lot of death during childbirth."

Chief Nzamane said there were laws outlawing underage sex in his country but it was still difficult to persuade men that child marriage was wrong.

Even so, he backed Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa who has said that he believes child marriage can be eradicated in a single generation.

But the optimism isn't universally shared.

In April, police in Britain launched a major operation at airports to stop girls being flown abroad for FGM after new figures revealed that 66,000 girls may have been subjected to the procedures for non-medical reasons.

Gavin Weston says the kidnappings in Nigeria are deeply disturbing. "I dread to think what's going to happen to them, if it hasn't happened already," he adds.

The Ulster-born director of Anti-Slavery International Aidan McQuade has also said that the Nigerian abductions should be a wake-up call to the world regarding the violation.

"This has been happening day in and day out for years in the form of child marriage but it is child slavery particularly for the sexual exploitation of young girls. The world is now paying attention but it hasn't been paying attention when it has been happening in ones and twos," he says.

"These girls are treated like chattels and abused with absolutely no respect for their rights."

What happened to us

Girl one

"Many parents who sell their children and the men who buy them aren't interested in age. You can be 10 years old. All they want is the dowry. And if you run away they will go looking for you until they find you. I was married at 13. My husband died two years later and I was told by my mother that I must look for another man to marry and give birth with."

Girl two

"I was given to a lady who is related to my father. I thought I was assisting her with her chores at home but when I was 15 she found me a man so that I could have children for her, not me. The first baby died but I later had three more children. But the old woman and the man wouldn't give me any money, for me or the children."

Girl three

"Where I come from, a father who has a daughter will look for any man who has any wealth and ask him to buy him a beer before telling him he is looking for a husband for her. Or a younger man who wants to marry a girl of say 14 will be asked for a dowry of two cows or goats."

Girl four

"Several girls who are as young as 11 or 12 will think they are going to special dances, but once they are there an 'agent' will blow a whistle and they stop dancing before men start bidding for them. The girls will be sold for as little as ten or fifteen thousand Tanzanian dollars –and their 'relationship' may start immediately afterwards sometimes in nearby bushes. The girl's parents may also seek a dowry for their daughters."

Girl five

"The man who made me pregnant was my teacher whose home I had visited for extra school tuition and he convinced me to have sex with him. But I didn't know I was pregnant until seven months later. I felt that something was jumping in my stomach. The teacher said if I told anyone about him he would kill me."

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