Access and Barriers

Harmattan: A Cry to End Child Marriage

You don’t need to be a woman to be a feminist. Meet Gavin Weston, a writer, artist, lecturer and inventor based in Ireland, who got in touch with us through Twitter, and has helped us spread word about our work. He recently published his first novel, Harmattan, in which he addresses a cruel reality of our times: child marriage.

As the Nike Foundation brought to all our notice during the Family Planning Summit, 25,000 young girls marry – or are forced to marry – before the age of 18 every day. These girls often dropout of schools, start families before they are 20, and lead a life of dependence and poverty. Harmattan, set in the Republic of Niger, tells the story of Hauoa whose life is ripped apart by discrimination beyond her grasp.

Though born into penury, Haoua lives a charmed life before her twelfth birthday: among four siblings she is chosen to be a sponsored child. This means that thanks to an international charity, and a doting adoptive family in Ireland, she gets to go to school. Haoua does not take her good fortune lightly. Even as she helps her mother around her house, and attends to her fastidious father’s needs, she works hard to keep up with her schoolwork. She plans to be a teacher some day, and believes that she will travel to Ireland, and meet the family that made this possible. But come her twelfth birthday, Haoua life is in shards. Her mother’s illness, and her own marriage forces her to grow up before she is ready, shreds her dreams, and leaves her questioning the very fabric of her existence.

Weston named his book after the geographical Harmattan, a dry, dusty wind that blows across West Africa from the Sahara. This dry, dirt storm can last for days and wreak chaos on entire villages. But the figurative Harmattan that blows across the protagonist Hauoa’s life is a far more cruel wind: one that has been bred by years of cruel tradition, superstition, and disrespect for women. Though it is a work of fiction, Harmattan, the novel is based on interviews Weston conducted across Niger.

But in a sense Haoua embodies not only the broken spirits of many young girls in Niger, but also across the globe. In Asia, child marriage is a huge problem particularly in the Middle Eastern countries of Iran and Iraq; and the South Asian countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bangladesh. ICRW statistics show that child marriage extends as far as Thailand and Taiwan.

Though ASAP does not work directly with cases of child marriage, we strongly believe that teenagers are too young to become mothers. Subjecting them to a marriage, and to motherhood before they become open to the idea is a form of inequity we strongly object to. Forced pregnancy is also a barrier to safe abortion. An unwanted pregnancy forces a woman — and more so a young girl — into a life of bondage, and refuses to give her the chance to enjoy her childhood or grow into complete, informed adulthood.

This week Weston and the organization Forward UK are publicizing Harmattan in the U.K., in an attempt to throw light on child marriage. To express solidarity, and to begin a week of discussions on discrimination against women, we decided to publish this note from Weston, in which he writes about his involvement, and his commitment to the cause

HARMATTAN & my association with FORWARD UK

As a former aid worker (with Africare) I have had a strong interest in humanitarian issues for as long as I can remember, particularly in relation to Niger. When my children were very young (my daughter is now 23 and my son is coming 21) it struck me that ‘sponsoring’ a child through an NGO would be an effective way of both doing something constructive and ensuring that my children gained some understanding of the huge disparities that life can throw up.

Over the next few years we communicated regularly with my ‘sponsored daughter’ (as six year-old Ramatou referred to herself) and, perhaps naively, I assumed that we would maintain contact. It was, then, a great shock – especially to my daughter – when we discovered that Ramatou had been married off by her family, just before her twelfth birthday. We never heard from her again. My daughter had just turned thirteen and was particularly upset by the development. I suggested that she write about it for a school project, little realising quite how much it was gnawing away inside me too.

Around this time, unfortunately, my marriage disintegrated. (I’m just as useless at relationships as the average bloke!) I had always been a ‘hands on’ dad, and had not envisaged ever being in a situation whereby I might have to take on lawyers simply to maintain my kids’ rights and wishes to continue to live with me. After a very difficult year I finally achieved what both I and my children had wanted – joint custody/residency – and set about trying to rebuild our lives. During the periods when my children were with their mum, in addition to making artwork, I rekindled my interest in writing short stories, and eventually joined a writers’ group. It was during a conversation in one of these sessions that the seeds of ‘Harmattan’ were sown. One evening an American writer made the sweeping statement, ‘men can’t write as women’. I disagreed with her strongly and soon afterwards sat down to attempt to write something from a solely female perspective, initially perhaps just to prove her wrong. When I read out what became the prologue to ‘Harmattan’, and listened to people’s responses, I soon realised that I had started something that had to be completed. I realised that writing a novel from a first person perspective might be an opportunity to ‘give voice’ to the millions of underage girls who are married off every year, a problem that many people find just too difficult to read about in fact sheets or newspapers. I was well aware that this might be perceived as arrogance, on several levels, (not least in terms of culture, race and gender). How could a middle-aged European man express the feelings and experiences of a twelve year-old West African girl? To achieve any kind of success I knew that I had to really try to ‘inhabit’ my character, Haoua. Hardly surprising, then, that over the next five years I frequently dreamt about both her and her family as if they were real people whom I actually knew.

When I began my research in earnest there was not a lot of information readily available on child marriage. However, thankfully there are now quite a few organisations and individuals working diligently to bring about an end to this disturbing practice. I am bolstered to hear Archbishop Desmond Tutu declaring that ‘We can end child marriage now!’ and that addressing the issue is as important to him as apartheid was. However, I think that there is a long way to go before we can convince not just governments, but village elders and even women (in some areas) that education for girls is much more beneficial than early marriage and servitude. And, of course, child marriage perpetuates poverty and FGM, so the problems are cyclical and immense.

So far, I have been surprised at how positively my book has been received, although by its nature there is still resistance to it. (It is not a ‘sexy’ topic and ‘Harmattan’ is clearly neither easy reading nor a coffee table book.) I am discovering that most men simply don’t wish to acknowledge the subject. Many of my male friends have been supportive in terms of buying the book and slapping me on the back for my achievement, but few are willing to actually engage in an indepth conversation about how we can bring about real change on a global and societal scale. This saddens me, because although I can write and articulate certain aspects of these horrors, I am lacking in other skills (political, business skills etc.) that are, I feel, essential in terms of mustering a global ‘movement’ that dovetails with what other organisations are doing. I am honoured to be involved with FORWARD UK (I am now one of their ambassadors and was a guest speaker at their recent London conference on child marriage) and several other NGOs have expressed an interest in working with me in terms of using ‘Harmattan’ as an awareness raising platform. I am, of course, delighted about the potential that the book presents in this respect, however, I hope that it is also a ‘good read’, a good novel that – despite its difficult subject matter – can be ‘enjoyed’ as a work of art.

By its nature, there will be no sequel to ‘Harmattan’. (I am now working on a new – quite different – novel, ‘Tin Town’, set in a parallel universe Northern Ireland in the 1970s.) However, I intend to continue campaigning to end child marriage in whatever way I can.

Gavin Weston
August 2012

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