Pooja was a late addition to my literacy class, not asking to read until a month after her brother had started. As a 15-year-old who had never attended school, she wasn’t accustomed to academic work and had a lot of home responsibilities which took her time away. But from her first lesson she was hooked, eagerly making the time to come over every day and making slow but steady progress. I was certain that she’d be literate within another couple months.
Yesterday after my last student finished reading I checked in on the homes of the students who hadn’t shown up. I had been out of town for three weeks and thought it would be good to let them know I was back. When I went to Pooja’s home, someone told me that she was at a wedding.
Today I found out that the wedding was her own.
Pooja is not the first young teenager we’ve seen get married off. My best friend’s mother was married at 13 to a man over twice her age, and has spoken of how traumatic the experience was for her. Yet she still married off her own daughters at 17 and 14. In one case we contacted child services in a failed attempt to stop the wedding, in the other case we were lied to repeatedly so that the fact of the marriage could be hidden from us until the wedding happened. Both girls are now in difficult marriages and have suffered much. We were invited to another wedding and left when we realized the bride was only 15. We saw a neighbor get married at around 17. One day a young couple moved in next door to us, the tiny yet heavily pregnant wife said she was 18 but she already carried a 2-year-old in her arms. Her second child died in labor.
Every time a teenage girl stops showing up in her usual spots, I fear she’s been married off, no matter how young she looked. It’s terrifying. And I’m not sure what we can do about it.
Pooja is only 15. She approached the world with a naivety and silliness of a girl even younger than that. She was a joy to have in class. And I am not certain that I will ever see her again. I don’t know if she will ever get the chance to learn to read. And there’s nothing I can do about it.