I had encountered Mariam during one of my many trips to Afganistan. Barely 13 years old, she had been forced to marry a man 30 years older. She got pregnant and risked dying, because a pregnancy, at that age and without adequate care, can end up quite badly. She felt weak, she had abandoned school and the husband had started beating her because she could not also take care of the house.
She had tried running away, but every time her father took her back to her torturer to whom she had been sold in order to feed the other children.
Ignorance and poverty lead to this and unfortunately it happens in many countries. Mariam’s story is not an exception, but it concerns millions of little girls, not only in Afghanistan. As Save the Children writes on its site, every year millions of little girls and adolescents in the world, under the age of 18, are married off to adult or elderly men. In Bangladesh, Mozambique, the Republic of Central Africa, Niger and South Sudan more than 40% of the girls who marry are between 15 and 19 years of age. In Chad, Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Madagascar the percentage drops to 30 to 40%. And it’s between 20 and 30% in the countries that we see in yellow on the map above. Childbirth is their principal cause of death.
These are spine-chilling figures that show how problems for women still remain the same almost 100 years after the campaign in Abyssinia where Indro Montanelli, at the time a soldier, bought a 12 year-old girl to satisfy his sexual urges caused by the testosterone of a young man away from home:
“She was 12 years old, but don’t think I was a brute” he said in 1972 on Gianni Bisiach’s TV Show L’Ora della Verità. “At 12 years of age those people are already women. [….] I needed a woman at that age. My non-commissioned officer bought her for me, together with a horse and a rifle, altogether 500 lire [….] She was a docile little animal; every15 days she met me wherever I was together with the wives of the others officers.”
No second thoughts, no embarrassment in remembering that episode that he later also recounted to Enzo Biagi. It’s striking that even at a distance of years, in the mind of this already mature man there never arose the slightest doubt that that girl and all the others like her who had been married off to soldiers immediately after the first menstruation, had been subjected to violence, and had been robbed of their childhood and adolescence. Even if you’re dark skinned and live in Ethiopia you’re still a little girl and have a right to your childhood and adolescence, and not to be raped to follow a cultural tradition.
It was right at the time, and even more so today that we continue to talk about it, but we do it in the wrong manner, reacting with violence to a violent act. To smear a statue that maybe should never have been where it is–but has by now been there for years–is not the right way to do it. We ought to discuss the issue calmly and propose instead a statue that reminds us of the daily sacrifice of these many child brides, who like so many little slaves, need our help.
The street artist Ozmo did well to dedicate one of his works to Desta’, Montanelli’s child bride, on a Milan wall. He gave her back a certain dignity. What we are missing is a homage to women on the walls and in the piazzas of our cities. There is not a single square in all of Italy with the statue of a woman. Let’s then make other murals, let’s place statues that commemorate great women who are the cause of pride for our country.
It is a lack that must be filled, because our history, our culture, our art, our science is made also of feminine names, that remain invisible. This happens in the rest of the world as well.
In New York for example, the only statues of women are in Central Park and depict fantasy characters like Alice in Wonderland, Juliet with Romeo and Mother Goose. No real women. But on August 26, the anniversary of the ratification of women’s right to vote, the first statue dedicated to women who have actually existed will be unveiled. It is the work of the sculptor Margaret Bergmann and represents the three New York suffragettes, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. This is an example that Italy should imitate, but what are we waiting for?
Translation by Salvatore Rotella