THE BLOG

April Jones, Child Brides and Us

On Sept. 26 a funeral was held for 5-year-old April Jones. She's unknown to most Americans, but as BBC News reported, the case of her disappearance in Wales on Oct.1, 2012 instituted the largest search in UK police history. Jones, who suffered from cerebral palsy, was abducted and murdered by Mark Bridger, 47, a married father of six. He was sentenced to life in prison on May 30.

The murder was called "sexually motivated" by the prosecution. Bridger's home computer had images of child sex abuse, naked children -- including a pregnant 8-year-old-and kiddie underwear saved on it. His VCR was set to a violent gang-rape scene of a teenager in the 2009 film The Last House on the Left.

Jones's funeral, held a year after her disappearance, was attended by hundreds in the tiny town and reported on throughout the UK. The funeral cortege -- a white, glassed-in, horse-drawn carriage with Jones's little white, flower-topped coffin visible and a pair of white horses wearing pink feathered headdresses -- was heartbreaking.

Jones was another victim of femicide. Femicide is the killing of females by males specifically because they are female. Femicide is a gender crime.

On Sept. 10 an 8-year-old girl, Rawan, was killed by a 40-year-old man in Yemen. This case differed from that of Jones, however, in that the man was Rawan's husband and it was the girl's wedding night. According to clinic personnel reporting to Reuters, the girl died of internal injuries. She was, in essence, raped to death, dying of uterine rupture and subsequent exsanguination.

The difference between Jones's murder and that of Rawan is that Jones's killer will be in jail for life and Rawan's killer could marry another 8-year-old tomorrow.

Those who think both these deaths are anomalous could not be more wrong.

UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO) and ICRW (International Center for Research on Women) have some startling statistics on what happens to girls at the hands of men in the world --Jones and Rawan are now part of those grim stats.

Child marriage is a huge problem worldwide, although it predominates in the poorer regions of the poorest nations. One-third of the world's girls are married before the age of 18 and one in nine is married before the age of 15. In 2010, nearly 70 million girls worldwide were child brides. The majority of these girls are in Southeast Asia (31.1 million), Sub-Saharan Africa (14.1 million) and South America (11 million). In Niger, 75 percent of girls are married before 18. In Chad, Central African Republic, Bangladesh, Guinea, Mozambique and Mali, between 60 and 70 percent of girls are married before 18. But throughout Central America nearly 50 percent of girls are also child brides under 18.

According to ICRW, if present trends in child marriage continue, 142 million girls will be married before their 18th birthday over the next decade -- an average of 14.2 million girls each year.

In the West we weep readily at the thought of a child like April Jones abducted, sexually assaulted and killed by a man in his 40s. But what of all the Rawans out there who are legal captives of men two, four, six times their age, raped not once, but repeatedly until their childhoods are obliterated forever? And what of the April Joneses who survive their rapes? What of them?

In the West we think of childhood as inviolate and those who harm children as monsters. But a quick tour through the Internet clarifies that many of those so-called monsters live in our own communities, perhaps in our own homes. In the West we've labeled child sexual abuse pedophilia, but it's still a global norm. According to WHO and ICRW, an estimated 150 million girls under 18 suffered some form of sexual violence in 2012. In the U.S. -- far from the developing world -- 83 percent of girls between the ages of 12 and 16 reported sexual harassment that became physical in their schools with varying percentages identifying teachers and coaches as perpetrators of sexual violence against them.

In countries like Yemen, where poverty in rural parts of the country is extreme and Sharia law allows child marriage, cases like Rawan's are shocking, but not entirely surprising. The risks to child brides are great, from the simple differences in size between the adult husband and the little girl to the risks from early pregnancy which is a major killer of girls 14 to 18 to the likelihood of contracting HIV or other STDs from the older, sexually active man.

But what about April Jones? She wasn't a child bride. Yet she was abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered, her body dismembered, in Wales, a country with no associations with extreme violence or sexual trafficking.

Was Mark Bridger just a random psychopath and Jones unluckily in his twisted path on that October day last year as she played on her bicycle near her home and he invited her into his car? Or is the attraction to younger and younger girls, the plethora of pseudo-child porn online and the sexualizing of little girls on reality TV shows like Toddlers and Tiaras or in dress-up outfits like the new "naughty leopard" costume fueling a deep desire in men for actual girls, rather than women? Can anyone forget the cognitive dissonance raised by the lipsticked and coiffed JonBenet Ramsey, another murdered child, as she pranced for the beauty pageant audiences? The shaved and denuded pubic area is now commonplace for adult women-making them look less adult and more like pre-pubescent girls.

It's perhaps easy to scoff at, the idea that men like Bridger are less anomalous than we want to believe. But remember those statistics: tens of millions of child brides as well as 150 million girls --not women, girls -- sexually assaulted.

The same day as April Jones's funeral, Stacey Rambold, 54, was released from a Montana prison after serving 31 days for raping Cherice Moralez, 14. Moralez committed suicide after being bullied online once she pressed charges against Rambold.

In handing down the one-month sentence, Judge Todd Baugh called Moralez a peer to Rambold, her former teacher, and that she was "as much in control of the situation as he."

It's easy for us to point fingers at rural provinces where people may be living on a little as two dollars a day when families ostensibly swap out their daughters to avoid paying dowries. But what about all these other cases? What about those 150 million girls sexually assaulted by the Stacey Rambolds, a teacher, or the local slaughterhouse worker, Mark Bridger? These aren't mysterious strangers invading communities in the dark of night. The towns where Moralez and Jones lived were picture-postcard perfect. Hardly the settings for a kind of violence most people have come to associate with the anonymity of large urban areas.

Jones's funeral was tragic. Rawan's death equally -- if differently -- horrifying. These are the stark cases where the victims did not survive. But what about the girls like Cherice Moralez? Rambold didn't murder her, but she's dead nevertheless. How many Cherices are there who took their secret with them?

Are we creating an atmosphere where pedophilia is normative both in the West and elsewhere? Thailand has abolished child marriage, but it remains a locus for child sex tourism where Western men come to have sex with children. India ranks 13th on the list of countries with the highest percentages of child brides at 50 percent. But in addition to that horror, little girls are sold into sexual slavery daily, as revealed in the harrowing 2004 documentary Born into Brothels.

According to the U.S. State Department, more than two million children are victims of child sex tourism each year and the majority are under 12 years old. Thailand, Cambodia, India, Brazil and Mexico are the world centers for child sex tourism with Thailand and Brazil the focal points. In India alone there are more than 1.2 million child prostitutes.

It's not just one man having sex with all these millions of children -- there are millions of men buying their pre-pubescent services.

Many nations allow child marriages because many adult men want child brides.

So when we weep over an April Jones or read in stunned horror of a Rawan, let's not forget all those other girls out there --150 million each year sexually assaulted and another 70 million child brides being raped nightly under the protective guise of marriage. Girls worldwide are at risk of losing everything-their chance at a future, their very lives.

The cycle of violence against girls begins and ends with men. Bridger alleged his murder of Jones was a drink-fueled rampage. But there were all those images on his computer, many illegal and yet freely available. And the marriage of Rawan -- state-sanctioned and protected -- but the age difference almost identical to that between Jones and Bridger, or Moralez and Rambold.

We can allow girls to continue to be robbed of their literal lives, or "merely" their futures, or we can prioritize these crimes against girls, stop this femiciding of entire generations. We can make child marriage illegal, we can work to ban child sex tourism. We can sentence child rapists to more than a month in jail and recognize that children are just that-children-and no matter how they dress up, they are not adult women, they are not capable of consent, they are off-limits.

Women have been working to stop these crimes against girls for years. But until men stop providing the client base for child porn and child sex tourism and child brides, nothing will change. And millions more girls will be lost forever.

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