Child brides: Why one Chinese girl’s story embarrasses us all

Ma Panyan, a 12-year old Chinese girl, was married off to a man more than twice her age who beat and abused her. Her 16-year fight for justice shows Asia is letting its children down.

Editorial

Every minute another 28 girls under the age of 18 get married. In Southeast Asia, as many as one in four females (between 10 and 24%) were already wives when they reached adulthood.

Ma Panyan, a 12-year-old Chinese girl, was one of these brides. She was born in 1988 into a poor family in Wushan County, Chongqing. Her father was violent to her mother, who developed mental health issues and killed him. With both parents gone, Ma Panyan and her two sisters dropped out of school.

Girls who live in rural areas like Ma Panyan tend to be less educated. Their impoverished parents or relatives believe that education is not important for girls and that only giving birth and running a house will make their existence meaningful. In 2000, Ma Panyan married Chen, a 29-year-old student.

Ma Panyan’s marriage is a violation of girls’ rights

Ma Panyan was forced to have sexual relations with her new husband after the wedding. She was also beaten and put under house arrest. “My first escape attempt was at the age of 14, I was beaten savagely after they found out,” Ma Panyan said.

News of her escape reached the local police but the girl’s uncle, Ma Zhengsong, explained to officers that she and Chen were married. It was assumed this was a family dispute and no action was taken.

Ma Panyan gave birth to a baby girl two years after her marriage. She was still just 14 years old. Ma Panyan explained she had, “not too much feeling,” about her child. “Really, I was too young and too terrified, I did not have the feeling of being a mother,” she added.

Her story shows child marriage is a violation of women’s rights. It denies girls the right to make decisions about their own lives. Every girl needs the right to choose who and when they marry. Laws are in place in Asia to protect women and girls’ rights but the abuse of girls like Ma Panyan remains resistant, persistent, and widespread.

Ma Panyan successfully escaped and fought for justice

Ma Panyan escaped for the fourth time in 2008. Her husband’s family did not pursue her this time. She had done her duty to them by providing a child. Three years later she discovered there was legal paperwork for her marriage which she had never signed or seen. It falsely stated she was 20-years-old on her wedding day.

She started divorce proceedings in 2016 and reported Chen for statutory rape as they had sexual relations while she was still a minor. The police told her that she had not made the rape allegations soon enough and would have no justice. “They almost ruined my life, are they not supposed to apologise?” she cried.

Ma Panyan is just one sad case among many

There is very little information about the size of the child marriage problem in China. Estimates in the Putian area of Fujian Province alone suggest between 120,000 and 600,000 girls become brides each year. If current trends continue around 142 million children will be married by 2020.

Source: ChinaFile, UNICEF

These numbers often mask the much darker trade of human trafficking, where girls are brought far from home to marry older men. The International Labour Organization estimates that 200,000 to 250,000 women and children are trafficked annually to Southeast Asia alone.

Ma Panyan was given her divorce but the fight continues

A local joint investigation team was established to look into the grounds for Ma Panyan’s divorce in 2016. It was granted, but not without controversy.

The former child bride drew huge attention for posting publicly to say that once interest in her case had died down, the local government had abandoned any follow-up action. Her concerns are well-founded. It is essential that laws are in place to prevent child marriage but the law also needs to be put into practice.

Our society must realise the harm caused by child marriage. Asian families, in particular, must protect their girls and raise their ambitions. Education is an important part of the solution as children who complete secondary school are six times less likely to marry young. The problem is as much economic as it is cultural, and free schooling would change the lives of millions of girls, as well as boosting employment and productivity.

One expert on the subject explained Ma Panyan’s case was, “a tragedy, but it should not be investigated for criminal responsibility.” These are the common attitudes that must change. Ma Panyan is not ready to give up. She said she will “continue to appeal and fight till the end”.