Child marriage, tradition, and rape

Guest: Dr. Faith Mwangi-Powell
Dr. Faith Mwangi-Powell grew up in rural Kenya with two parents who were deeply committed to her education. The daughter of a village chief, it wasn’t until she completed her PhD and was deep into her career in public health and population studies that she realized child marriage had been happening all around her. Today, Dr. Faith is the CEO of Girls Not Brides where she leads a network of global organizations working to end child marriage. She joins us to reflect on her own childhood, how she was sheltered from many of the cultural traditions happening right around her, and the work she's doing to support the 650 million women currently living with the consequences of child marriage.
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Dr. Faith Mwangi-Powell Transcript

Sabrina Merage Naim
From Evoke Media, I'm Sabrina Mirage Naim. With me is Kassia Binkowski, and this is Breaking Glass, a series of conversations with women around the world who are shattering glass ceilings and challenging social norms. They are audacious, gutsy, and their stories are echoed across borders and generations in a rallying cry that is changing the narrative for women everywhere.

Sabrina Merage Naim
Today we head to London to speak with the CEO of Girls Not Brides, Dr. Faith Mwangi-Powell, who is actually from Kenya, and I have to say, as not the first woman from Kenya that we've spoken to, I love them all.

Kassia Binkowski
We love them all. They're so fun. They're so intelligent. They've worked so hard. And the conversations are always funny.

Sabrina Merage Naim
Super funny, uplifting, even though this topic is not, but Dr. Faith was born in rural Kenya to a village chief, and both of her parents really supported her path in education. She is a highly educated woman, has her PhD, and actually was in a career in public health and population studies before she decided to pivot to this issue of child marriage, which is, I guess, surprisingly, really prevalent and always around us, even though it's not something we're seeing in our backyard. It is something that we've talked about a number of times on this show with past guests.

Kassia Binkowski
It's true. I mean, some 650 million women around the world are suffering the consequences of child marriage. We've spoken with it about it with us Remini Nasreen, Sakhi for Ahmed and several other guests, and it's a lot closer to home, Sabrina, as you know that most people would think.

Sabrina Merage Naim
That's true. It's something that I've talked about also, with previous generations of my family not so far removed. And even though we don't necessarily see this, so prevalently in our own backyard, it is a global issue. It's an epidemic that is still persisting, I mean, just now, if you look at the news, the Taliban has taken over Afghanistan, and we're seeing forced child marriages happen right in front of our faces. So this is an incredibly timely issue. It is so relevant all around the world. And Dr. Faith is truly a champion for change. Take a listen.

Sabrina Merage Naim
Dr. Faith, thank you so much for joining us today. We're so pleased to have you on the show.

Dr. Faith Mwangi-Powell
I'm pleased to be here. And thank you for having me. It's great privilege to be with you guys.

Sabrina Merage Naim
Absolutely. And you know, the conversation and the topic that we're going to be delving into is actually something that has kind of organically come up again and again, in recent conversations, which is all about child marriage. And we really wanted to kind of talk to an expert, someone who knows about the state of the issue around the world. But before we kind of delve into that, you are sitting in London right now. We want to hear a little bit about your background and your story. Where are you from? What did your early career look like? Tell us a little bit about the early years.

Dr. Faith Mwangi-Powell
We might need all day to tell you about my day. But thank you again for having me. I'm from Kenya—Nairobi, Kenya. That's where I grew up. But I grew up in actually a small village, kind of in central Kenya. So I didn't grow up in a CTA or my village gal. That's what I say, who has come to London to try and solve some of the problems of the world. So I'm very excited and feel very privileged. And my journey really started with my own mother, my late mother who passed away last year. And it's just because she was a leader of women. And I would sit in the middle inner circle as she's working with all women leaders in the village, telling them about the money they have in the bank and helping them write their statements and all that, and one of the things we struck me was why were are all these women not educated? What went wrong? And that to me kind of really cemented my need, my desire, to do something for women.

Kassia Binkowski
Was your mother educated?

Dr. Faith Mwangi-Powell
She wasn't educated. It's very interesting: My own mother came for my PhD in Exeter. And it was so interesting here in the UK, and the local newspaper picked her up so we have a headline news: 'A village mother travels to UK for her daughter's graduation.' And it was a most proud moment for my mom to be part of that graduation because she knew. I always say that we enjoyed the destination because we know how far we have come. So she knew how far we had come. So for me that was just amazing. And even now, telling you, even though this was a couple years ago, I still feel goosebumps because it was such an exciting opportunity. Despite her lack of education, I think what she had—the resolve to do better for fellow women—is what I took from her. Be a solution, not somebody sitting on the sidelines.

Sabrina Merage Naim
I love that, and I just want to highlight the fact that, actually, you're not the first Kenyan who's been on the show; we've had quite a few. And one of the themes, regardless of... All of our guests from Kenya have kind of worked in different realms, whether it's, you know, environmental conservation, or education, or now the work that you're doing with women and child marriage. But there's a similar theme, which is strong women, the knowledge that education is the key to everything, and a desire to kind of break the chain of oppression from generations before. And I just want to say that I think it's a really incredible theme that we've seen specifically from our guests from Kenya, and something that we really should should learn so much more about, you know, across the board. And your career did not start in child marriage. Talk to us a little bit about the path of how you got here.

Dr. Faith Mwangi-Powell
My career actually started in community health. I trained to be a community oral health—kind of dental health. And I worked in my rural village—my district hospital—as a community oral health officer, where my job was to work with literally all levels of community health as you think, but really focused on dental health. So the choice was to go on and be a dentist and all that. But I really felt that there was so much different about community engagement, working with women and children and listening to all the challenges they were facing. And I got an opportunity to go back to the college, where I was trained to teach. And I was teaching there and I was working with young students, thinking about the courses they want to take. And I got an opportunity to do a master's degree in the UK. And when I came, I was actually coming to do a master's degree in education so that I can go back and teach and really felt, 'This is not for me.' And I just started talking with a colleague, actually from Kenya, who I met on the flight to the UK. And she was telling me she's going to study population, and population dynamics and how population issues affect women and fertility and all that. And I thought, That is so fascinating!' And I got to the university, and it's so funny, because the first thing I did instead of going for registration, I went to the to the department and I said, 'Can I change my course?' They looked at me like, 'You haven't even gone into the class What?' I said, 'No, I don't think I want to study education. I want to study population and these are my qualifications.' And it was so interesting. They did an assessment and they said, 'Yes, you qualify.' And that was the age when we were talking about women in development, thinking about the integration of gender and development, women and development. And I was thinking, 'What would I like to do?' And looking back at my mother, she was she had actually been appointed as a village helper to lead a look at contraceptives. You know how to bring family planning, we are talking the early 90s, the early 70s when people are talking about family planning, and I remembered as a small girl, how my mother used to walk around to people's homes telling them about family planning and people telling her, 'You have 10 children. What do you know, telling us about family planning?' And that really made me think, 'Maybe this is something I need to study.' What are the choices women make about sexuality and sexual reproductive health? And how does economic empowerment or education determine those choices, and that became my master's thesis. And that opened a new world I didn't even know existed of women oppression, and we meant discrimination and value and all that.

Kassia Binkowski
What's super interesting about the things that you're talking about from, you know, gender and international development to community health to population studies, I once you get into that space, they're all so interconnected, that the, you know, the step from FGM to child marriage makes perfect sense. The step from, you know, oral health to population studies also makes perfect sense. These things are like so layered, you know? I myself have a Master's of Public Health and studied that space. And so I can see this like very natural progression. As soon as you start to work on those gender issues, you can start to see how the oppression and the value of girls have the access to education, it's all connected. So kind of regardless of where you decide to put your stake in the ground, it makes sense and it all comes back to these gender dynamics. Today, you are the CEO of Girls Not Brides. And I want you to paint a picture for us of the global landscape of this issue. Geographically, where is child marriage most pervasive?

Dr. Faith Mwangi-Powell
I think even before I got to the world, I think to me that one statistic which stays with me every day, even as I speak to you this afternoon, is that a girl is married every three seconds. So I always count in the amount of time I spend, and I think, 'For that hour we spoke, so many girls have entered child marriage.'

Kassia Binkowski
It's mind blowing.

Dr. Faith Mwangi-Powell
Yeah, that is the statistics which keeps me awake at night. And the thing about it is that we are so used to saying '12 million girls...20 million girls...'—whatever. And it's very hard for people to embrace that number because our brains don't think in millions; they think in individuals. So that statistic—23 girls are married every one minute—it's lot of girls, but to come back to your question, Kassia, we have 12 million girls married every year below the age of 18. And with COVID—you have all seen the devastation of COVID—we are hearing statistics from UNICEF that we are going to be expecting another 13 million on top of the 12 million who get married every day, another 13 million girls married because of COVID. Because COVID has removed the the security structures which protect girls, like education, household economy. So those things have really brought a big impact. But also to say that child marriage is an issue of global concern. It's everywhere. We have had our friends in the US who are working with state governments to increase the age of marriage from 16 to 18. We have all that, but the biggest challenges we have right now is Africa, Sub Saharan Africa, and also Asia. That is where the highest prevalence is. But there's also a good story behind that. Before COVID, we had begun to see some declines in places like Ethiopia in Africa, of course. We had started seeing some declines of child marriage, but we are worried. I think our biggest concern as the activists, as the leaders, as that people working on this issue, is that COVID is threatening to undo all those great results which many people have tried for so many years to deliver. And it's really a time for us to accelerate our efforts in terms of advocacy, in terms of resources, in terms of building leaders on the ground, building movements, building ecosystems, so that we can deliver that change. So there is a lot of work to be done. We are not there yet. And I'm really worried that we don't even know up to this point, the true impact of COVID.

Sabrina Merage Naim
Faith, when you're talking to people in countries where it's not as pervasive, where it's not as in your face—maybe Western countries where we're not seeing this happen as pervasively—and maybe people are saying, 'I recognize that this is a problem, but why should I care about it?' and you're trying to kind of explain that this is really a global issue, that we all need to care about this. What is your response to this is not just an issue, country, by country, it's not just an issue in certain parts of the world. This is something that everyone should care about. And here's why. What is the why?

Dr. Faith Mwangi-Powell
I think that why is because it's us. It's affecting us. It's part of us. It's human. When we hear that in half of the world, many girls are really at risk of child marriage, we are denying people. Whether it's economic development where... When countries are poor... I actually think that COVID has given us a very good example. We are saying that even if we are safe here, but other people are not safe there, nobody is safe. If we are not affected by child marriage and half of the world are not even being economically productive, then we always have people depending on us. So we are not rich. We are not wealthy because we are always helping somebody else. But if people had the opportunity to explore their own dreams to become what they need to become, then we'll be a bit more equal. But I think also the bottom line is that... I always actually like talking to mothers and fathers and mothers specifically to say, 'I was a mother maybe when I was 32. Can you imagine being a mother at the age of 11? At the age of 12? At the age of 14? Can you imagine what that is like? What that looks like?' So, and that to me, when you tell people that personal story of, 'I know there are girls right now, pregnant at 12, pregnant are 13.' When you tell a mother who has gone through that process—that motherhood process—it rings home to say, 'And you can do something about it.' So to me, I removed the statistics, and I tried to speak to people on the personal level, to really understand what we are talking about. I talk to fathers, and I say, 'Imagine this is your daughter. She's only turning 12, she's beginning to feel like a little girl and excited, and all of a sudden, she's married off to a man your age.'

Kassia Binkowski
So let's talk about the long term impacts of that because there are both individual impacts as well as social impacts, I'm assuming, and and I think, you know, we can jump to some conclusions. I want to be very careful about throwing around clinical terms. but I imagine it's incredibly traumatic for a little, you know, any young girl to go through that experience, and certainly that carries with it mental health implications. But what do you know—what do we know—about the long-term impacts of child marriage on the individual level?

Dr. Faith Mwangi-Powell
There are many impacts, of course. The big one we all know is that we curtail people's lives. You know, a girl at 14 or 12, they're just starting to really live their life. They're just getting through adolescence. So I think it really stopped the adolescence for for many girls. So that is a given. There is also trauma. I have met girls who are so traumatized that they don't talk about it. I have met girls who are going through mental health challenges because of child marriage. I have met girls who have physical and health challenges because of early pregnancy. Maybe with all the people you spoke to, you've heard about the fistula. That's a big, big challenge for early pregnancy, and then these girls are isolated and sent away. So that's a big challenge. But it's also a big psychosocial challenge for families. And I think the biggest challenge we have is that in some communities, it's seen as normal. It's a social norm. So people don't talk about it. So there is a big cycle of silence around it, so people don't also share some of the challenges they are facing. So it becomes an issue with you surrounded by silence. And that also makes the people suffering to just keep suffering because 'My mother went through it. I'll go through it,' and it becomes a cycle of conspiracy, if you like, and we want to break that.

Sabrina Merage Naim
What you just said actually reminds me a lot of what we heard from Ifrah Ahmed when she spoke about FGM, and the cycle of continuing. When we asked her, 'Why, after the trauma of of one young girl going through it and being cut, why would she do that to her daughter? Why would she allow that to be done to her daughter?' And one of the things she said was, it is just the cycle of 'I will suffer. My daughter will suffer. It's the cycle that we all kind of...' It perpetuates in that way.

Kassia Binkowski
It just became part of this normal life cycle.

Sabrina Merage Naim
Right.

Kassia Binkowski
It just becomes so normalized, that it gets passed on from generation to generation without thinking twice.

Sabrina Merage Naim
What are some of the more common motivations for child marriage? Where did this come from? Where did this practice come from that in some parts of the world, it became normalized in this way? What is the root?

Dr. Faith Mwangi-Powell
I think there are many reasons why we have child marriage. But some of the common reasons have been associated with what I call the social norm. And when I talk about the social norm it's this idea of protection. There are many parents who think that, 'I don't want my child to get pregnant out of wedlock because then nobody will want her because she's got a child, so it's better for her to be married. Then she's in a place of safety.' So then it becomes like a myth. I have heard many communities saying, 'This is a way to protect our girls. This is a way to secure the future of our girls,' and I call it and and I have coined a term which I cal 'the social contradiction of choice.' When we are going to tell families, communities, to stop child marriage, we have also to give the girls a choice. If the girl does not have a choice, if there is no education, if there is no job, job opportunity, that girl sitting at home, she's going to be more at risk than maybe within that marriage. So we need to be very, very careful. What we are offering when we are saying 'stop' because I think some of it there is a protectionist where we want to protect our girls. That's one driver. The other one is also poverty. Poverty is a big thing where girls have become commodities for bright price and all that. There is also the third one, which is religious: 'That's what we do in our religion or in our culture.' So there are so many different ways, and that is why we also say that it's not one size fits all. It's understanding community dynamics, community dialogue, understanding what is the motivation within this community. You may find in one community it's more protecting. In the other community, maybe it's the the dowry. And in the other community, maybe it's religious. So we need to really understand what are the different drivers because they are different. But the big thing—and I love Ifrah. She's my friend. I know her very well—The big thing about it is that it has gone on so long that people don't question it. It, you know, it becomes a norm. The FGM is the same. It's passed on. People don't talk about it. And that is why when we are working to add child marriage or to end FGM, we talk about these community dialogues and community debate so that we can understand what are the motivations behind that and think about alternatives. If you want your girls to be mature and grown, can we have like an alternative rite of passage, as opposed to cutting the girl? And maybe you have you heard that from Ifrah. What are some of the alternatives we can bring so that you still achieve what you want to achieve for your girls, but don't have them married? Or don't have them cut, if it's FGM. So those are very, very important conversations to have at the community level.

Kassia Binkowski
So there's, there's a lot of things coming up for me here, and one of the more interesting elements of our conversation with Ifrah was the unforeseen consequences of trying to end this practice and the ripple that that would have through a community. I mean, she talked about the individuals who are responsible for the cutting, and that they earn money from that. That's an income, and how do we replace that? What are the unforeseen consequences of trying to end child marriage when it's so deeply ingrained in so many cultures?

Dr. Faith Mwangi-Powell
I think whether it's child marriage or whether it's something else, I think there is always backlash because people always feel like you are condemning their own way of life—'You are condemning us. Who are you to condemn us?'—so I think that's the biggest backlash. And the other one is it's also stigmatizing the girls who are already married, you know? Because there are some girls who are already married, and then if you are saying, 'This is wrong,' where does that leave me if I was married at 17 or 14? So that is why the work we do needs to be really grounded in community engagement so that they can be the solutions for some of the things which come up. You talk about the people who are paid, for example, with FGM. They have actually, in many countries, become the solution to some of the ways they can be engaged and be part of the change agent. So we can never fly in and say, 'Stop.' We must really engage with communities and say, 'Okay, if this is your way of life, what are some of the ways we can mitigate change?' I find when the solutions are drawn from the bottom-up, as opposed to top-down, they become more long lasting, and it's working. And in every community, there are always people who are pro-change, so it's really identifying those people who are pro-change and working with them within theirsetting, because they are going to be aware on sanctions or any things which might come up as you start working on this issue because you are challenging people's way of life.

Sabrina Merage Naim
One of the really interesting results of this podcast for me, and I think maybe I'm speaking for Kassia also, is when we're learning about subject matters like this, you know, it's so easy for for us to kind of be judgmental and say, 'This is a barbaric practice!' And really what we need to do is kind of step outside of ourselves to recognize the bigger picture, right? The picture of the people that we're talking about here, who would be who would be affected if these practices ended and how we need to work around that and how we need to work with people like that, or the root of how this all came to be, and sometimes, it was for protection, right? We recently had a conversation with Esther Remini, whose family is from Mashhad, Iran and in that culture, you know, a lot of the Jews of the culture who for generations had to live in secrecy would marry their children off to each other very young to avoid being forced to marry outside of their culture and their religion. And when you take a second to think about it, you recognize like, 'Okay, they, they were trying to protect their families,' right? You want to almost understand where it comes from. And my, my own great grandmother was married off when she was nine-years-old, and similarly, you know, out of out of that kind of feeling like she, they were trying to protect her, or they were trying to give her the best start to her life. But I also want to ask you about the history of the dowry because, again, when you take a step back and think about where it comes from—the idea being that when the girl or the the woman is married off that it will be the responsibility of the groom for the rest of their lives to provide for the family, to be kind of the stronghold in terms of financial support, and this dowry is the starting off point, like, 'Here we go, go live your lives.' Tell us a little bit about the history of the dowry and how the dowry also plays a role here.

Dr. Faith Mwangi-Powell
I think, looking at dowry, we can look at it in most places, like in my own culture, it's actually the man who pays the girls, like if I'm getting married, it's my husband who pays my dad a dowry. It's not the other way. And there are some countries where the man is the one who pays. So it's a very complex system of dowry and payment. And where it came from was a way of trying to secure, especially in my own culture, Kikuyu, they were looking at a way to secure that. 'If we put value on these girls, then this girl is not going to be mistreated as if she is of no value.' So it's saying that this girl, my daughter, is equivalent to so much, so when you go with her, you will take care of it. It's the same way if you go to a shop, and you get a freebie, you think, 'Oh, God, I can throw it out.' But if it's expensive... I think that is where it all came from. Then the other one is where we we're trying to really make sure that the family in some communities that that the girls are the provide. So if you take the girl away, then we don't have that provider. So we need to be given some resources so that we have that provision. But as you say, if I go back a little bit to where you talked about all these issues, is to realize that as we go to communities, it's to go with what we call the 'do no harm approach.' If you go with a do no harm approach, and I do hope do no harm mentality, it gives you the headspace to listen and understand where all these things came from. Because no matter how negative a culture ends up being, if you look at where it came from, and the intentions, the intentions were good. And it's saying that in some of those cultures... And it's saying that if this intention is where you intended... For example, when you look at where the cultures where people want to protect their girl so that they are not mistreated, they are not isolated, every parent want to protect their child. But to be honest, child marriage is not protection. So it's saying 'Okay, you want to protect. Let's figure out how we can actually protect this girl rather than exposing her to bigger risk.'

Sabrina Merage Naim
Right? It's the difference between the intention behind the act and the consequence.

Dr. Faith Mwangi-Powell
So unpacking the difference between intention and consequence helps people understand, 'Oh, okay, this is why this is wrong. This is why this should not happen. This is why we should not do...' And then finding different ideas of achieving the intention. You know, how do we make sure that the girls are protected? Take them to school. School is a good place for safety and protection. How do we make sure you achieve what you need? Look for income. So it's really looking at those pieces of work together with a community. And in my years of work, I have found when you start unpacking those two things, people actually come with solutions. It's the people, the community, who actually tells you, 'This is what we can do. This is some of the ways we can work with this. This is some of the ways we can protect girls.' So it's very good to be able to deliver and to have that dialogue at unpacking some of those issues.

Kassia Binkowski
So we started this conversation by acknowledging your extraordinary education and what you achieved for your family which was which was, you know, truly incredible achieving your PhD a couple of years ago, like you said, and we've had conversations, again, actually in Kenya, about the impact of girls education around the world. You just mentioned that education can be a huge opportunity for protection and to protect these girls that would otherwise be married. Tell us a little bit more about that. Unpack that for us. What is the role of access to education for girls in all of this?

Dr. Faith Mwangi-Powell
What we have seen—and this is also statistics and just looking at what happens—is that when girls stay in school up to secondary school, we reduce child marriage by about 15 percent, the reason being that girls get married between the age of 10 to the age of 14, so that's when they are finishing primary school. So if they start, then that way, they stay in school. They are not married. If they continue—and what we are asking government is actually to make sure that girls stay in school until secondary education because we have seen that delays marriage because there is an option. There is something they are aspiring to. When girls are at home and there isn't anything they're aspiring to, there isn't anything they are doing, it's very easy for them to be taken into marriage. We have also seen that during COVID. Even in a country like Kenya, we saw teenage pregnancy going up very, very high because the girls were out of school, so school becomes a protective measure for girls. Being there and seeing opportunities for the future... There is a big campaign now going on with a global partnership for education, and one of the things they are asking government is to increase access and safety in schools, and also to have a monitoring mechanism to make sure that girls stay in school. We are worried that all the girls who are at home when there was lockdown may not go back. How are we going to monitor to make sure they go back? Where are they? And if schools can actually become a place where they monitor and track girl enrollment and staying in school, they can be quite a great tool for supporting the end child marriage agenda, so we are really advocating for that. But beyond that, if they are able to go beyond that and get options... I'm a CEO because I went to school. Education really opens up doors for people across the world. How can we make sure that happens?

Sabrina Merage Naim
I have to be honest: I would have assumed that that statistic would be higher—that being in school would be more of a protective mechanism for girls, and we know that the access to education also delays pregnancy. The maternal mortality rate is much less. The child mortality rate is much less. Girls end up being more economic providers to their families, and so many things. It's just on and on and on. But 15% is lower than I would have expected. What—

Kassia Binkowski
Yeah, I agree. That was shocking to me.

Dr. Faith Mwangi-Powell
I think it's quite low because there isn't really great data out there. Because it's not something... I think like Uganda itself, when we looked at a specific country, we had up to 34%. So I think what we are seeing—and it's very interesting; we had this conversation yesterday—there isn't really comprehensive data to really start bringing these issues. And UNICEF is doing a great job now they are doing a monitoring mechanism for child marriage because then if we have better data, then we can really demonstrate what is the impact. We need this data for evidence for our own advocacy. Yeah, I agree with you it. If you look, if you go to countries, like I was in India in February, and I was very impressed by the number of girls who are going to school and things have have changed. So it's amazing. Yeah.

Sabrina Merage Naim
So I think that's a really important caveat because 15% doesn't feel that compelling. But what you're saying is it's likely much higher than that. And the fact of the matter is we do need the resources and the attention to do the studies here so that the global community can kind of pinpoint this as such an important global issue that needs more of the global community's attention, and I guess my question then is, in addition to access to education for girls, what are some of the other things? What are some of the really important other mechanisms that need to be in place here to avoid child marriage?

Dr. Faith Mwangi-Powell
I think education is one as well. That's the first one, and I think one of the other things we are asking for is allowing children—girls—to go back to school even if they havea teenage pregnancy. I have seen countries where girls get pregnant and they get out of school and they are not allowed to go back. So what choices do they have? I was actually reading on my WhatsApp that in Tanzania they have now ruled that girls who drop out of school because of pregnancy can go back which, to me, is a great thing because that is something we've been advocating for. The other piece of this is contraceptives. I know that is a very dicey and very sensitive subject, but really giving some sexually productive choices and services, I think that is absolutely important. Because if they are not in really adolescent friendly, or young girls friendly services so that they can access, I think that is very, very important. I think hiding behind sexuality, that our children are not sexually active, I think is wrong because that is misleading. We've seen data that they are, so providing proper services for them to access contraceptives where they are so that they can be able to continue with an education. And also making sure that they they really have engaged with some of the programs we are we are working into that they can also have the agency to make their decisions. I think it's very important that young women are empowered to be able to make decisions for themselves, and that is the whole agency. It's very, very important for young girls.

Kassia Binkowski
I mean, what's so impressive about this topic, and surprising to me, honestly, is I didn't expect child marriage to come up as often as it has and organically as it has in our conversations with people all over the world. Despite like being trained in public health, despite working in that global space for a long time, it still felt like something that was really far away from our personal network. You know, Sabrina was floored when you shared that it was just two generations away in your family, right? That it was your great-grandmother. Grandmother? Great-grandmother?

Sabrina Merage Naim
Great-grandmother, and actually on both sides.

Kassia Binkowski
Like that's... That's shocking to me. This is so much closer to our worlds, you know, than I think people give it credit for. Was it ever personal for you, Faith? I mean, you grew up in rural Kenya. Was it a practice in your community? Do you have friends and family who were impacted by this directly?

Dr. Faith Mwangi-Powell
To be honest, I think it was there, but I always say I'm so privileged because my own dad was a chief, and he was like maybe the biggest advocate for girl education. I am the youngest of eight—actually nine but some of my brothers passed away. Um, I'm the youngest of nine and, and I think... Actually 10. One of my brother passed away. So we are nine now. And out of all those people, we have six sisters. We are six girls, and all of us have some form of degree—a PhD, a medical doctor, a pharmacist. That was unusual. When I was growing up, many of the people who I went to school with in my village never continued beyond primary school. In fact, we were looked upon as an odd family—'Why are these women going to school?' I remember my own sister coming home, driving a car, and the whole village was like, 'Who is that woman driving?' It was very interesting. So I feel like I come from a very privileged place. But I know it was happening. But because nobody talked about it, I look back and it's now I think, 'Oh, you got married!' It's very interesting that when we were growing up, we just thought people didn't want to continue. And it was such a secret that you hear somebody is leaving with so and so, but nobody really talked about it. In fact, if they talked about it, they never talked about it near us because we were the children of the chief. We might report them to the chief. So it was very interesting that... When I even went into FGM and when I started doing my PhD, I was thinking, 'Oh, now I get it. I get what I've been here!' To be honest, in my own village, there were people who got married, and there are people who went through FGM, but I was never aware of it. So I feel really privileged by that sense. Yeah.

Sabrina Merage Naim
I do think it's important to say that even in my own family where this, you know, a few generations back was pretty prevalent, and it was, quote unquote, normal, right in that time and in that society. Still, we didn't talk about it. All these generations later, when talking about the women of the family who who grew up and in some cases to be extremely strong, independent women who really provided and nurtured families and even other community members. But when talking about how they grew up or their stories or the challenges that they faced, we don't talk about it. It's it's a point of tension. And I think even me saying this is controversial because there are older members of my family who don't like to bring it out into the open, right? It's a kind of a point of shame. But my mom was just telling me last night... You know, I've talked on the show about my great-grandmother on my dad's side, but my great-grandmother on my mom's side, who was also married off very young, and on her wedding night, she I think she was like, I don't know, 11 or 12, and she didn't know really what was going on. And her in-laws gave her these extremely, extremely heavy gold earrings. As a child, it was so heavy for her ears, that she went outside and she was like playing with a tree with these gold earrings—'One for you, one for me, One for you, one for me.'—and she put it in her ear, and it ripped her ear lobe because it was so heavy. And for the rest of her life, she had this split your lobe. And as a child who was married off so young, she went to live with her in laws. She didn't understand like, children cannot understand the weight of what is happening to them at such a young age. They are not prepared physically, mentally, emotionally for that reality. And that's why when Kassia says the word trauma, although of course that is a clinical term, but it is extremely traumatic for many of these girls, and that trauma then translates to multiple generations of a family. It stays with us.

Yeah and then it, it perpetuates the silence as well because you are not even sure who to talk to about it and how to talk about it. And that's what has happened. I see people. And thank you so much, Sabrina, for sharing that. I really feel privileged that you shared that with us right now. But I think that trauma perpetuates it because nobody really kind of comprehends what happened. I went to India, and somebody was asking me, 'What is your most interesting story?' And I went to India and I met this girl and she's still so vivid in my mind. And she told me she was married at 11. And she didn't even know she was being married. She came home from play school. She was sitting there. She was called by her dad. She was very excited. She's now like maybe 20. She was very excited. And then this old, old man came. And she was told she's going to go with that man. And she didn't know where she was going to go with that man. It's later she realized, 'Oh my god, this is nightmare of the nightmares.' And she ran away. She ran away in the night. This is an 11-year-old running away in the night. And I asked her. I met her in February of last year when I went to India, and I asked her, 'How did you even know how to run away?' Because she could not go back to her home because she's already been sent off, and these people are looking for her because they paid whatever was needed. And she said she ran away to her grandmother's house, and the grandmother wanted her to go, but to me, it's not even that running away. It's like...'How did you know?'

Kassia Binkowski
She's just a little girl.

Dr. Faith Mwangi-Powell
You are a little girl and you're not scared? Because most of them is scared and sit in the corner and take it, and he said, 'No, I just ran away.' And she said, 'I believe so much that I was born for more.' And I thought, 'Wow.' You know, when she was telling me the story, she was telling it through an interpretation. And right now, those are my heroes because she saves girls in real time. She goes from house to house. She has a small NGO. She goes from house to house, checking where the girls are being married off. That is her job. She swore no other girl we would get married on her watch. And she had 36 girls with her who have been rescued from child marriage, and when you looked at them, you can see the level of trauma in their faces. You can see that somebody's gone through trauma. It's written on their face. You could see it. And I was looking at these girls and I was thinking, 'You are ever so brave.' They made me feel so insignificant because my job is not even as tough as theirs because they are the ones going in the homes and talking to these girls and telling them, 'Let's run away.' And I was so...You know, my heart just went out to them because that, to me, is the tragedy. And that is a story we never tell, and that is a story we never hear because they are over there. But I'm here to say there are girls doing incredible things rescuing other girls from child marriage. And there are others who are in it and really struggling and being raped every day because to me it's rape. Every day. You have been raped at 10, at 11, at 14. No girl should go through that if we can do anything about it.

Kassia Binkowski
Faith, what wins have you seen? You've been in this work a while now. You're clearly having a global impact. What are some of the successes?

Dr. Faith Mwangi-Powell
I think I've seen a success recently, and I said earlier, I've seen that in a place like India, the child marriages were going down. There is data from UNICEF showing that child marriage is going down, but I think it's very high, very easy to talk at that level. In Ethiopia, the levels were also going going down, I have seen across the the growth, over 40 countries have now enacted National Action Plans, really to address child marriage, there may not be financing them, but there there is awareness, I have seen the the UN resolution on child marriage. So that really has brought the issue to the development arena, the global policy. I'm seeing it included in priority goals, such as the Sustainable Development Goals and governments making community commitments to add child marriage... In fact that the commitment is to end child marriage by 2030. So we have nine years to do that. So there are these things which are important. But to me, the real successes is when I go to a place like Rajasthan in India, and I meet 36 girls who have been saved from child marriage by the efforts of their communities. But we want the globe, everywhere, every corner of the globe to say no to child marriage because we can do it so that our own girls we unleash those doctors, those CEOs, those journalists, those leaders. Whatever they need to be, they need to be allowed to be, and to me that is a success. That is a success when we see girls really fulfilling their potential from whichever corner of the world we've come from. That is a success.

Sabrina Merage Naim
Breaking Glass is a production of Evoke Media. Evoke is a nonprofit organization that exists in order to elevate the people and stories that are working to make the world a more unified and equitable place. Learn more at weareevokemedia.com

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