Like our new president, I am an African living in America. Actually, I was born in Miami, but my father is a traditional prince from the ancient Yoruba Empire of Nigeria, West Africa. I usually state this fact quite proudly.
Today, however, I am appalled by an African tradition that is still practiced today in some countries: parents giving daughters away in marriage at the tender age of 10 to 15, in exchange for a dowry price of cattle, food products or cash.
Your eldest daughter, Malia, is 10 years old. I am 15. If we were born in Chad, or Mali or Mozambique, there is a more than a 50-percent chance that by now, we would be pregnant and married to an old man (age 30 or older) with several other wives.
Please don’t get me wrong: I respect my ancestral heritage. I understand that polygamy traditionally served the purpose of ensuring that every woman in the community had a husband, the opportunity to have children, and the financial support of a help mate. I understand that in an agrarian society, the number of children in a family impacts the quantity of crop the family harvests each year. The amount of crop harvested affects the available money and food in the family. I also understand that older women often sought out young girls for their husbands to marry. These girls, in turn, would assist the Iyale, or Mother of the House, with her myriad responsibilities. I get all that; however, I suggest that the time for child brides and polygamy has passed.
In 2009, teenage girls should be strictly focused on gaining the best education possible to garner the intellectual foundation, philosophical grounding, spiritual prowess and practical skills needed to combat international monsters like war, injustice, racism, sexism, poverty, hunger and HIV/AIDS. I would imagine these are some of the reasons you enrolled your brilliant daughters in the prestigious Sidwell Friends School.
Like the Yoruba Iyale, the Mom-in-Chief must take care of ALL the children – not just the fortunate ones she birthed. Many African girls’ urinary, digestive and reproductive systems are ruined because their young bodies are not sufficiently developed to endure the trauma of childbirth. An article in the November 2008 issue of Essence tells the horrific story of Mariama
Abdou, now age 34, of Niger, who was married at age 15 to a middle-aged farmer. She soon was impregnated, but lost the baby during childbirth. Ms. Abdou’s husband kicked her out of his home after this unfortunate incident. To add insult to injury, she suffered through eight surgeries over a 10-year period to correct the bodily damage caused by giving birth at a young age.
Madame First Lady, I respectfully implore you to partner with Congresswoman Betty McCollum (D-Mn.), Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Il.) and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Tx.), who have co-sponsored the International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act. If passed, this legislation would involve the U.S. government in preventing child marriage worldwide.
While this issue is prevalent in Africa, countries in Latin America and Asia also practice the outdated system of child marriage. According to a report from the International Center for Research on Women, the following countries have the highest percentage of girls married before their 18th birthday:
Please use your influence with President Barack Obama and Congress to free girls all over the world from the antiquated systems that create mental and sexual slavery.
Editor’s Note: Moremi Akinde is a sophomore at Barbara Goleman Senior High in Miami Lakes. She is the stepdaughter of Bradley Bennett, executive editor of the South Florida Times.