DAQUF, Egypt—The girls in this village near the languid waters of the Nile were always told they could do no better than to marry young, as early as 11, no later than 16.
Shy, dark-eyed Um Kalthoum Hassan was rarely allowed to step beyond the threshold of her home. Nora Abdullah, a teenager with rough hands and broad shoulders, was sent to the cotton fields as her brothers went to school. Nasra Jamal begged off her first marriage proposal at age 13, but she feared it was only a matter of time before she became a bride.
Ping-pong was on the agenda. So was electrical wiring and cooking, with each girl learning to pull apart a light socket and, as importantly, finesse a smooth tomato puree.
Soon the girls were challenged by other mysteries of life. Did they know the names of their own body parts? What were they used for? Was pregnancy something that their bony hips, flat chests and teenage brains could handle?
School suddenly crystallized, in their words, as salvation. "No one ever explained reproduction before," said Nora Abdullah, now 18. "Women are just expected to have babies. . . . Then they have all these children and they have to marry them off to get rid of the burden.
"I would've been married without this class," she said, in Arabic. "We all would have. . . . There are still parents who want to get us married."
Child marriage exists almost everywhere in the world, but slums and rural areas of developing countries produce some of the most luckless young brides. Daquf's girls were part of a fresh and holistic approach to changing possibilities and expectations of adolescent girls and their families in rural Egypt.
The web of programs launched in 2001--based in literacy, sports, life skills education and family seminars--is being examined as a possible model for the rest of Egypt and other troubled spots to ensure that childhood doesn't end in forced marriage.
In many countries, social workers have combated child marriage through education programs. India, for instance, has focused on keeping girls in school with the idea that a one- or two-year delay in marriage has a positive effect on their health.
Still, even with a broad government effort, girls often do not find support within their families to remain in school. Unless families and communities are pulled in to help preserve a girl's childhood, there are powerful religious, cultural and economic forces that can overwhelm any girl.
"We're talking about married girls, not married women," said Judith Bruce, a program director at the Population Council, an international policy research group. "When you consider the health consequences and the human cost, this is probably the largest human-rights abuse you could name."
Girls wed as young as 7 have little say in when or whom they marry. Deemed women once they are made wives, the girls no longer, if they ever did, attend school. They rarely have access to contraception. More to the point, they usually have no inkling of why they might want contraceptives anyway. A good wife should give birth in the first year of marriage, and, often married to older men, the girls must succumb to all sexual demands.
The problems attributed to child marriage are well-documented. Teen brides die during pregnancy and in childbirth at double the rate of women in their 20s. Girls pregnant by age 10 to 14 are five times more likely to die than women twice their age. Babies borne by girls are sicker, weaker and less likely to survive childhood. Girls with older, experienced husbands suffer sexually transmitted diseases at a galloping rate, so high that they now make up a population highly vulnerable to the AIDS virus.
This month, top AIDS experts warned that India, where child brides still abound within the billion-plus population, is on the brink of having an epidemic parallel to those in Africa.
None of this is exactly news in Cairo, New Delhi or Addis Ababa, where laws limit the age of marriage to 16 in the case of Egypt, and 18 in India and Ethiopia. But such laws are routinely ignored among the poor and the least educated.
Poverty, outright gender prejudice--girls are less valued than boys--and fears about a girl's virginity often are the stated reasons for early marriage. Cultural bonds are so strong that even countries with strict child protections have seen forced marriage emerge among immigrants from Pakistan, India and the Middle East.
British officials have been forced to deal with the problem on two fronts. Girls are being spirited out of Britain as underage brides, but, increasingly, illegal weddings are also taking place secretly in Britain. The Pakistani or Bangladeshi girls involved are daughters of immigrants, but they themselves are British nationals needing protection.
"It's not as if this is a shocking Third World thing," London caseworker Heather Harvey said. "It's not foreign. It's here."