Every child has the right to a happy, healthy and safe childhood. Unfortunately, early, forced and child marriage robs millions of girls of this right every year, forcing them to become wives – and mothers – far too soon.

Meet Arden, a member of the Because I am a Girl Speakers Bureau, who boldly took a stand and wore a wedding dress to school to raise awareness about this global issue.

By Arden McAlpin

arden-locker-end-child-marriage-sign-cropped-350x262It all started with a dress, really. I was on a family vacation and I popped into a second hand store to see what it had inside, when I happened upon a gorgeous wedding gown. It fit like a glove and I loved it. Of course, what was a young, teen girl like me going to do with a wedding dress? Although it was pretty, I knew marriage was far in my future. A few days after I got home from vacation, the dress came to me in the mail from a relative who heard me raving about it. Although I was happy, I still had that same dilemma: what am I ever going to use this for? Marriage is far, far away.

Unfortunately unlike me, many girls around the world don’t have the choice to wait until they’re older to get married. For a variety of reasons, 15 million girls under the age of 18 are married every year, oftentimes without the girls’ full consent, and to men much older than them. Knowing that for many girls, marriage is without love, I had an idea. Finally, I had a reason to use this dress. Not for marriage, but as a tool for change.

On Halloween a couple of years ago, I wore my dress to raise awareness, as well as funds for Because I am a Girl. It was a huge success! Since joining the Speakers Bureau last year, my dress has come to good use once again. I gave a presentation to my school about child marriage, Because I am a Girl’s global work to protect girls’ rights, and our new Because I am a Girl club – all while wearing this big white gown. It turned heads, that’s for sure, and I hope everything I said had left as much of an impression as that big white dress. I kept that dress on for the rest of the day and the reactions I got were very telling.

Obviously, it’s unusual to see a high school student walking around in a wedding gown, so people were shocked. As I walked through the halls, I had people call out things like, “You’re too young to get married!”, or jokingly congratulate me. To see a girl wearing a big white, wedding dress at school here in Canada does sort of seem like something to joke about. The symbolism of it was from far from funny, though.

My dress was and is the symbol of getting married in our culture. It provoked a reaction that was expected, and a point of view that is shared globally: school and wifehood don’t mix naturally.

In developing countries, when a girl is married, she takes on so many new responsibilities and has no time or means to get an education. She will likely get pregnant within a short time, making it harder to keep attending school – if she was even there in the first place. No girl should have to live like that.

“It’s about time that every girl has the chance to go to school, to learn, and to have the ability to make her own, informed choices about her future.”

I am fortunate because I am free. I am getting an education. I can decide when and to whom I marry because I have the luxury of making my own decisions. Unfortunately, so many do not. It’s about time that every girl has the chance to go to school, to learn, and to have the ability to make her own, informed choices about her future.

As a girl who has a bright future ahead of her, I want to do my best for others who aren’t as lucky as me. I dream of a world where everyone is educated and marriage is by choice and for love. Just because I don’t face the same struggles as girls in other countries, that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t fight for their rights.

Child marriage is a global issue, impacting the lives of millions of girls every day. Education is one of the most powerful ways to keep girls from marrying early. Learn more about the issue of child marriage and see how you can help keep girls in school – where they belong!

About the author

arden-head-shot-cropped-200x200Arden is a grade 12 student from Ottawa, Ontario, where she founded and leads her school’s Because I am a Girl club. She has been a member of Plan Canada’s Because I am a Girl Speakers Bureau since September 2015. Passionate about girls’ rights and social justice issues, Arden has presented to her school and peers about the devastating effects of early, forced and child marriage. This post first appeared on Plancanada.ca and is republished here with express permission.

Founded in 1937, Plan is one of the world’s oldest and largest international development agencies, working in partnership with millions of people around the world to end global poverty. Not for profit, independent and inclusive of all faiths and cultures, Plan has only one agenda: to improve the lives of children. Because I am a Girl is Plan’s global initiative to end gender inequality, promote girls’ rights and lift millions of girls – and everyone around them – out of poverty. Visit plancanada.ca and becauseiamagirl.ca for more information.