A Desperate Decision: Antonia and Sarah’s Story
Poverty drives desperate families to dangerous decisions.
At just 12 and 10–years-old, sisters Antonia and Sarah faced the prospect of being married to much older men. Just children themselves, marriage at that age often means an abrupt end to education and the opportunities it brings.
In north-western Ghana, where Antonia and Sarah live with their family, 37 per cent of girls are married before they turn 18. Child marriage is illegal under Ghanaian law, but statistics gathered by Ghana’s National Population Council show that the rate is increasing.
Antonia and Sarah are the youngest two girls in a family of six children. Their parents, Kumi and Joanne are subsistence farmers. They say they made the decision to marry their daughters off to ease the financial burden of providing for their other four children, a choice many poor farming families in this rural region are forced to make.
20% of girls across Ghana are married before they are 18. In Bia West District where Antonia and Sarah live, it’s 37%.
“We had no choice,” Kumi says with tears in his eyes. “We would have taken a different decision if we had other options.” Their oldest daughter has managed to make it to high school, but it has not been easy for Kumi and Joanne to cover the costs. While attending school is free in Ghana, the costs of uniforms and school supplies place stiff financial demands on rural families working as sharecroppers or subsistence farmers.
“It has been a struggle catering for all six children,” Kumi says, “We are doing our best, but things are just difficult. The hardship was becoming too much.” Daily life, he complains, had become unbearable because of the constant struggle to fend for the children.
Children who cannot go to school are encouraged to either contribute to the family farm, work for wages on other farms, or in the case of many girls, are married off. Marrying girls to older men shifts the cost of caring for them onto their husbands, and betrothal comes with a bride price for their family that can help them feed other hungry children or keep the family farm operating.
Joanne explained that it was difficult to convince themselves to arrange marriages for the girls. “No parent will do that if not for hardship and poverty,” she said.
To counter harmful practices like child marriage, Right To Play works with adults in communities to form local Community Child Protection Committees (CCPC) and with children to form Child Rights Clubs. Child Rights Clubs boost children’s voices in local decision-making and advocate for improvements in children’s conditions using community performances that include songs, plays, and presentations about issues they are facing. Community Child Protection Committees help children connect with safe, responsible and trustworthy adults who can connect them to existing social services. Both groups work together to strengthen the ability of local people, children and adults, to stop abuse, exploitation and other harm to children.
We would have taken a different decision if we had other options” Kumi, 37
A few weeks before their marriages were scheduled, Kumi and Joanne moved the girls to a relative’s home outside the village. The remote location meant their neighbours and the local authorities were less likely to discover the marriages until it was too late to stop them.
But one of the neighbours had been trained by the village’s Community Child Protection Committee to recognize the warning signs that often occur when a child is being prepared for marriage. They noticed that the girls had left home suddenly and tipped off the authorities that they might be about to be married off. Thanks to the tip, child welfare officials were able to intervene and stop the marriages from happening.
The Community Child Protection Committee and local social workers held discussions with Kumi and Joanne to make sure Antonia and Sarah would be safe to return home. Discovering that financial pressure was the root of the problem, they helped Joanne and Kumi develop a plan that would keep the girls safe and help to alleviate the poverty that provoked the marriages.
The Community Child Protection Committee members helped Kumi and Joanne enroll in training programs that would allow them to leave subsistence farming for more highly-paid work. With an alternative option for income and with a growing understanding of the dangers of child marriage, Kumi and Joanne agreed not to marry off their daughters. “It is something we will not think of again in the future,” Kumi said. “I’ll try and provide for my daughters.”
“I’m happy to see my parents and sisters again,” Antonia, 12
Antonia and Sarah were reunited with their family, enrolled in school and provided with school uniforms, bags and other supplies at no cost to their parents.
Inspired by their experiences, both girls have joined their new school’s Child Rights Club, where they share their story and contribute to discussions about how other girls in their village can be protected from child marriage.
* Pseudonyms are used to protect the privacy of the family