Last month, my county had its 32nd Annual AIDS Walk to pay tribute to those who we have lost, and to support those who are living with HIV/AIDS. Whenever I receive an invitation to this event, I remember a news story I did a decade ago about how child marriage and HIV have common drivers, and what UNICEF was doing to combat child marriage and HIV/AIDS.
Some of the factors that put girls at risk of child marriage also place them at higher risk of HIV infection. These include poverty, low education attainment, and gender inequalities, especially those that limit girls’ ability to make decisions about their own health.
And this year, there is one more factor—COVID-19.
With 25 million child marriages averted in the last decade, UNICEF issued a warning earlier this year that these gains are now under serious threat: 10 million additional girls at risk of child marriage due to COVID-19.
According to the UNICEF analysis, school closures, economic stress, service disruptions, pregnancy, and parental deaths due to the pandemic are putting the most vulnerable girls at increased risk of child marriage.
Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, 100 million girls were at risk of child marriage in the next decade, despite significant reductions in several countries in recent years. In the last ten years, the proportion of young women globally who were married as children had decreased by 15 per cent, from nearly 1 in 4 to 1 in 5. This is the equivalent of some 25 million marriages averted, a gain that is now under threat.
“COVID-19 has made an already difficult situation for millions of girls even worse. Shuttered schools, isolation from friends and support networks, and rising poverty have added fuel to a fire the world was already struggling to put out. But we can and we must extinguish child marriage,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore in a statement.
And the AIDS Walk just reminded me of what these girls have to lose if we do not act urgently – their education, their health, and their futures.
Here is the situation on our hands. When a girl turns 12 and lives in poverty, her future is out of her control. In the eyes of many, she’s a woman now. She faces the reality of being married by the age of 14 and pregnant by the time she’s 15. If she survives childbirth, she might have to sell her body to support her family, which puts her at risk of contracting and spreading HIV. Definitely not the life we would imagine for a 12-year-old.
There is a solution. Imagine rewinding her to age 12. Have her visit a doctor regularly, and help her stay in school where she’s safe. Then she can use her education to earn a living, avoid HIV, marry and have children when she’s ready, and raise happy and healthy children like herself. Now imagine this solution continuing for generation after generation.
COVID-19 is profoundly affecting the solution and the lives of girls in poverty. Pandemic-related travel restrictions and physical distancing make it difficult for girls to access the health care, social services and community supports that protect them from child marriage, unwanted pregnancy and gender-based violence. As schools remain closed, girls are more likely to drop out of education and not return. Job losses and increased economic insecurity may also force families to marry their daughters off to ease financial burdens.
Worldwide, an estimated 650 million girls and women alive today were married in childhood, with about half of those marriages occurring in Bangladesh, Brazil, Ethiopia, India and Nigeria. To off-set the impacts of COVID-19 and end the practice by 2030—the target set out in the Sustainable Development Goals—progress must be significantly accelerated.
“One year into the pandemic, immediate action is needed to mitigate the toll on girls and their families,” added Fore in the same statement. “By reopening schools, implementing effective laws and polices, ensuring access to health and social services—including sexual and reproductive health services—and providing comprehensive social protection measures for families, we can significantly reduce a girl’s risk of having her childhood stolen through child marriage.”
Is child marriage a common problem in your part of the world? What can those of us who live elsewhere do to help?
This is an original post for World Moms Network by To-wen Tseng. Photo credit: Raphael Pouget/UNICEF.
In a blog post that I wrote for NPR’s intern edition back in 2007, I started with, “I moved to the United States four years ago, but I never felt more like a foreigner until I was back in my homeland of Taiwan last summer.” I then told a story about how I was kicked out of a taxi in Taipei because I didn’t speak a Taiwanese dialect. I ended by saying, “I don’t feel Chinese or Taiwanese and I certainly will never be a real American.”
Fourteen years have passed since that post was written. Now I feel American, 100 percent. America is home, with no doubt. Funny how things change.
One thing remain the same, though. I still feel like a foreigner when I am in my birthplace of Taiwan, or among my fellow Taiwanese.
Not that finding a place in America is easy. I have to constantly prove that I am an American, that I belong. Fourteen years ago, I tried to prove it to myself. Now, I try to prove it to everyone around me, from strangers I encounter to my fellow Asian American people.
Recently my family went hiking and as always, my little hikers got a lot of attention. In the shade of an old tree two white ladies started to talk to my 8-year-old.
“What’s your nationality?” they asked.
“I’m American,” he replied.
“No, where are you from?”
“No, how do you say ‘hello’ in your language?”
He was confused, but I knew what those people wanted to hear. So I said, “We’re American. If you’re asking about ethnicity, I was born in Taiwan to Chinese parents. The children were born in San Diego. And we try to speak Chinese at home but as you can see, they are more used to English.”
Then we moved on. My children asked me what all those questions were about. I told them that because we look different, those people assumed we were foreigners.
“How do we look different?”
“How not being white is different?”
“…Oh look at that blue butterfly!”
The kids went to chase the butterfly and soon forgot about the conversation.
On our return trip we saw those ladies again. They apologized for “not being sensitive.” I told them we got a lot of questions but we never got apologies. So I thanked them.
And I meant it. With the delicate distinction that lies between curiosity and insensitivity, we face this kind of behavior all the time—some people call it “micro aggressive.” To me, it’s a constant reminder that we still need to prove that we belong. It is uncomfortable, but nothing close to the hardest part. The truth is, racism against Asians has been there ever since, or even before, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. However, people have never talked about it as we are doing right now. Conversation is always a good thing and a sign of change. I don’t mind proving this to myself again and again, as long as it guarantees a better place in this country for my offspring.
The hard part is walking between two worlds as an Asian American. In the last year—the pandemic year— I have found myself caught between the maliciousness from different Asian groups, particularly between Chinese and Taiwanese. I contribute to a variety of Chinese and Taiwanese publishers. And to this day, the standard language in many Taiwanese newsrooms for COVID-19 is still “Wuhan virus.”
I had hard time communicating with some editors I work with that it is unbearable seeing the words “Wuhan virus” under my by-line. In my neighborhood, my children have never heard any white people using slurs against Asians, but they hear Taiwanese kids use the term “Chinese virus” a lot. My Taiwanese friends who are determined to stick with the term said it loud and clear: “Taiwanese will always be Taiwanese! Chinese will always be Chinese! Nothing changes when we move to America! And as Taiwanese we will always hate Chinese!”
Some of these people have been living in the States for decades, yet believe that they will never be American, and their determination to hate people of certain national origins is ever solidified. Identity is indeed a most curious thing.
These are the hardest things for me: explaining to my children how the hostility between different Asian American groups is deeply rooted in politics back in Asia and fueling the hate crime at home in America, and how long it will take to eliminate such hate. These conversations are just draining.
Recently I have come to the conclusion that I will be honest to my children and tell them that I do not have a good answer. But there is one thing I can assure them: we should all have empathy. Not because we are American, Chinese or Taiwanese, but because we are human beings.
And hopefully, with a little more empathy, we will get a little bit closer to a day without hate.
It was almost the end of October but high temperatures heated up across Southern California. It made me think about global warming.
Last month young people across this country organized strikes and marches in many cities, suggesting that adults have not done a great job looking after the planet and that needed to be changed. The series of inspiring events gave me—and many others—a speck of hope for the future. A great number of my mom friends enthusiastically took their teenagers and even younger children to participate.
Days before the strike in our city I asked my first grader if he was interested in being part of the movement. I told him that I would be happy to sign him a permission slip that was required by our school district. He said no, adding that the strike was “silly.”
I was surprised. Yes, he was only six years old but he knew exactly what the strike was all about. He also cared about climate change; he liked polar bears a lot and understood what the rising of global temperatures would affect his polar bear friends.
Yet he said no to climate strike. I wondered why.
“I don’t think the kids in our school really know what we need to do to stop global warming!” He said. “They don’t sort their plastics in school. They throw the crust away when eating pizza. They ask their parents to keep engine running and air conditioner on when waiting for them outside of school at pick-up time. And they are doing a climate walkout! What’s the point? That’s just silly!”
As he talked, he got faster and faster, louder and louder. He told me that many of his friends complained when our city banned plastic straw earlier this year. “When the grown ups say, ‘okay, now let’s not use straws,’ they are not happy. But now they are going to have a walkout to ask grown ups to fix climate problem! That’s just super silly!”
My heart sank. I thought my son was trying to say “hypocritical” when he said “silly,” but he hasn’t learned the word “hypocritical” yet. It did sound very hypocritical to me, but I believed what he described would only apply to a small number of the children.
Recently, however, I witnessed something that made me come to a realization.
At a local mom group I belong to, a member proposed that instead of using bottle water and paper plates, we should all bring our own drink and reusable table ware to future meetings. I seconded the proposal and expected it to be approved by the group without much opposition. But I expected wrong. The group voted no. Most members still preferred the convenience of bottle water, plastic utensil and paper plates.
Now I was feeling the irony that my son was feeling. Half of the members in the group took their children to the climate march, yet most of them would choose convenience over sustainability in everyday life.
There are adults who didn’t make climate-conscious choice in daily life but wanted to march and asked those who are more powerful—for us it’s global leaders—to fix the problems for us. There are children who wouldn’t make climate-conscious choice in daily life but wanted to have a climate strike and asked those who are more powerful—for them it’s adults—to fix the problems for them.
So we saw the irony lingering from global climate strike: In Boston, cardboard and paper “climate change” sign were found everywhere in trash cans on Boston Common. In Toronto, an idling truck promoting climate strike angered people.
Greta Thunberg inspired the world not because she organized the global strike, but because she lives according to her conviction. She is a vegan. She traveled by sailboat instead of flying. As for most of us, we travel and eat without thinking much about our carbon footprint and the actual consequences of our daily life in spite of the believe that climate change is an urgent threat.
Thinking of that, I was ashamed. My son was right. Awareness should be both knowing and doing. In addition to a strike, there were much more basic things that we could, and should be doing. Still, I think the climate strike was a good thing – better to have the right value, which might one day change what we chose to eat and eat with. We have to stay climate conscious after the strike.
Oh, and what we did on the day of our city’s climate strike? I walked my son to school instead of driving him. He made a “Save a polar bear! Do not keep your engine running when picking up/dropping off your children” poster, and posted in front of his little brother’s day care. No, we did not participate in the climate strike, but we tried to do our part.
When my second child was six weeks old my husband had a business trip to Asia for one week. One evening when I was breastfeeding the baby, my first child demanded me to pick him up and carry him to the toilet, “Mom, I need to pee, now!”
I couldn’t figure out how to deliver a 4-year-old child without interrupting the feeding. Plus, the 4-year-old was perfectly potty trained. So I told him, “Come on, honey, you know how to do it by yourself. I can’t pick you up now. I’m feeding DiDi.”
“No, no, no! I want you to take me!”
“I can walk you down the hallway.”
“No, no, no! I want you to pick me up!”
I didn’t know what to do. My husband wasn’t home to help. I was tired. Now I was trying to nurse my baby to sleep while my young child throwing a tantrum, which really adds in salt to injury when being sleep-deprived.
Then he peed his pants and had a meltdown.
“Honey, honey, that’s okay!” I tried to calm him down, “We all have accidents. Now you take your pants off and wrap yourself in this towel. Then come sit with me. We’ll clean you up once DiDi are done eating.”
But he was crying like his head is being cut off. He cried too hard to hear me.
The baby finally fell asleep. I put him in his crib. Then I picked up the crying child and cleaned him up. He must have been crying badly, because when we were in the shower, I heard the doorbell.
A police officer stood at my door and asked if everything was alright in the house.
“Yes, yes,” I told him, “My child had a meltdown. But we’re good now.”
He asked me a couple of questions to make sure I was okay. Then he wished me a good night and left.
One of my neighbors called 911 and reported the cry. Realizing that, I actually felt peace, knowing someone cares about what’s happening in my house.
I was born and raised in Taiwan. At about my son’s age, I was beaten up by my parents almost every day. There was always crying, often blood. But no one ever showed up at our door and asked if everything was alright.
Our neighbors looked at me pitifully when I walked home from school. Then they turned around and chatted in low voices. I could tell that they all know something was happening in our house. Yet no one ever asked.
I finally escaped from the horror. I fled to America, left behind an irritable father, a depressed mother, and an anxious sister.
I finished journalism school in America and became a journalist. I write about parenting, education, family lifestyle, maternal and infant health. Currently serving as the US correspondent for a Taiwanese parenting magazine, I frequently write about how people in America parent differently from people in Taiwan.
Last year, a Taiwanese couple posted prank videos with their kids on Facebook. In the video, the parents scared their 5-year-old and 3-year-old with a vacuum machine until the kids cried. After trying to fight back and protect his little brother, the 5-year-old was spanked by the dad with a clothes hanger. The video angered its audience, but nothing happened to this couple.
At about the same time, the controversial American Youtubers “DaddyOFive” were sentenced to probation for similar videos with their kids. I wrote about the case for the magazine. A Taiwanese pediatrician commented, “Many young lives could be saved if only we judge parents like Americans do.”
I could have escaped from the horrible domestic violence much earlier if my parents were being judged. My sister didn’t have to suffer from anxiety disorder if my parents were being judged.
In 2016, 16 children under six died in car accidents because they didn’t use car seats (Jing-Chuan Child Safety Foundation, 2017). There is a car seat requirement, but no one would say anything if parents don’t use car seats or leave their children in a car alone. Those 16 children didn’t have to die if their parents were being judged.
Three years ago in Taiwan, I saw a father slapped his toddler in a restaurant. At the scene, I seemed to be the only one who was shocked. Others shushed me, “it’s none of your business to judge other’s parenting.” I silenced. I still feel bad after three years.
That night when the police showed up at my door and questioned my parenting, I knew I was being judged. Being judged doesn’t make me feel like a terrible mother, as long as I know I did nothing wrong. I don’t feel attacked or ashamed for being judged. I feel safe, knowing we, as parents and a whole-of-society, are watching each other. And by so doing, we protect our children.
This is an original post written for World Moms Network by To-Wen Tseng