Benecia Zanga Rodrigue is only 12 years old, but she’s already responsible for running a household: cooking, cleaning, and selling food at the market each night. That’s because just a few months earlier, her family married her off to Tchari, a 46-year-old unemployed driver.
She's one of the many child brides in the Central African Republic (CAR) who've been married off with her parents’ consent.
Child marriages are declining around the world, according to UNICEF, but not in the Central African Republic, where the practice is becoming a bigger problem. Today, CAR has the second-highest rate of child marriage worldwide: 29 percent of girls are married by the age of 15, and 68 percent are married before they turn 18.
It's a practice exacerbated by five years of sectarian armed conflict that has destabilized much of the country and sent families deeper into poverty and desperation. Sexual violence has often featured as a weapon in the conflict. Human Rights Watch has documented hundreds of cases of sexual slavery and rape, used by the various warring factions, as ways of getting revenge on their enemies.
Now, some families have come to see child marriage as a way to actually protect their children from the sexual violence related to the conflict — as well as gain access to income in the form of a dowry.
Amadou Djabi, a merchant who saw each of his seven sisters married off before they turned 13, said security is one of the major concerns.
“Armed groups can take the children by force. It’s horrible, it’s very dangerous,” says Djabi. “But if she is at home, and has married one man, everyone will know that she is [spoken for].”
His youngest sister, Zoubeida, 12, recently gave birth to a baby girl after being married off by the family. For girls like her, the decision means an abrupt end to her childhood and dreams.
“When I was young, I used to go to school. But now, I have a child who keeps me busy,” Zoubeida told VICE News. “I really wanted to be a teacher… I really wish I could go back to school.”
This segment originally aired April 23, 2018 on VICE News Tonight on HBO.
Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation.