By: Jessie Emelander, Development Director for Read Asia
I was recently interviewing some women who were enrolled in the Adult Literacy Program. They came with incredible stories and shattered lives. Some of the stories were hard to believe.
I needed to understand where these women came from, so I asked if I could visit one of their neighborhoods. And I mean that loosely—because when I did, it was more like a city than a neighborhood, with one and a half million people living in one square mile. We drove down a few streets that were barely wide enough for the van to fit through, and stopped next to a small fruit stand.
So now I’m out of the car, standing next to a wall, and suddenly the wall moves. The wall is a door—a door to a shed, that could be a house, but it could just be a shed.
This girl is standing in the entrance, waving me in. I don’t know who she is, but my mother obviously didn’t teach me better, so I follow the stranger.
We walk into the front room of her house, which appears to be a kitchen because there are a few pots hanging on the wall. And now I’m curious. Who is this girl?
Her name is Lakshmi and she proudly tells me she’s a wife, and a mother of three. But Lakshmi… she’s beautiful and doesn’t look nearly old enough to have one child, let alone several.
She tells me she was married when she was 6 years-old, and now she’s 27.
And my thoughts race…
Oh gosh, you’re so young.
OH GOSH, you’ve been married for 21 years.
“How old are you’re children?”
2… 10… and 15?
27 minus 15 is… 12
No wait, that can’t be right.
27 minus 15… ah, still 12
Married at 6, first child at 12
Your first daughter is old enough to have a child, too.
You could be a grandmother at 27.
As I suspected, Lakshmi has never stepped foot in a classroom. She hasn’t seen her parents since she was 6, because now she ‘belongs’ to her husband and his family. And not having any livelihood skills, she’s totally dependent on them.
Awkwardly out of questions, I ask her what this room is that we’re standing in (expecting her to say “the kitchen”). She tilts her head, totally confused. I ask again. No answer. Confused look. I decide not to ask a third time and just inquire about seeing the rest of the house.
“This is my house”, she says.
And she looks at me with this huge smile on her face. She’s proud. She’s proud of her home. She’s proud that they have more than 1 pot to cook their food. She’s proud that she’s married. She’s proud that she will likely be a grandmother before she turns 30.
So now I’m uncomfortable, but why? She’s happy. Why is child marriage unjust when she’s happier than most people I know?
I think it feels unjust and uncomfortable, not because she married young, but because she had no choice in the matter. No one ever asked her if that was what she wanted. She didn’t wake up in her 6-year-old bed, in her 6-year-old body, and decide to get married that day. She didn’t decide to leave her entire family and relinquish control of her life tomorrow, and next week, and every day after that.
So what does the Read Asia’s literacy class mean to the women we interviewed? It means they have a choice in the matter now. They can empower their sons and daughters with that same choice—to decide for themselves what their life will look like tomorrow, and next week, and every day after that.
Some parts of the Adult Literacy curriculum that I’ve always loved are things like how to avoid child labor and child marriage, and the educating parents on the power of education, especially for the next generation. And now I know why.
It’s the power of choice.