UNICEF’s Vaillante – The Realities of Child Marriage

Child marriage remains a staggeringly widespread issue across the world. Though the United Nations has dedicated itself to the eradication of this human rights violation, per UNICEF “no region is on track to meet the Sustainable Development Goal target of eliminating this harmful practice by 2030”. Much of this is down to a lack of awareness, especially where it counts. Vaillante, a three-part mini-series produced for UNICEF, contends that the most powerful thing to do is to speak out. The debate over this practice is ongoing, but traditionalists in favor of it benefit only from its negatives staying in the dark.

For families, there is often an economic incentive to marrying off their daughters, as the new husband takes on all financial responsibility for their bride (these motivations have been spurred on by the shock of the Covid-19 pandemic, and a projected 10 million more girls are at risk than previously expected). Then there are the traditionalist arguments, involving safety, honorability, convention.

Vaillante argues the trouble in confronting child marriage is that its horrible effects go largely unacknowledged by the families taking it into consideration, as does the breadth of its prevalence. It is a practice which often presents insurmountable hurdles to the child’s development. Their schooling can go uncompleted, as they are made to dedicate themselves to home life, often to tend to children of their own, that is, if they survive childbirth at their age. Bringing up the abolishment of child marriage, activists are met with arguments that they “know nothing of it”, or “these things should be decided within the family, they know best”.

Girlsnotbrides explains that films are often used to effectively generate conversation about these most entrenched beliefs, even among rural community members who otherwise neglect to be spoken down to. Tall as the Baobab Tree “has been screened in nearly 60 villages across Senegal and has been an effective conversation starter with young people and elders alike”. Vaillante similarly rings as an educational tool. Its economic storytelling incorporates much of what UNICEF is keen to educate the public about, without descending into infotainment.

Over 3 episodes, we follow the parallel journeys of two young girls whose lives are shaped by child marriage. One is Sali, who misses her college graduation ceremony to speak with the mother of a child bride who has died during labor. This visit is a part of Sali’s efforts to chronicle and get the word out on the tragic realities of child marriage through her blog, SPEAK OUT, which attracts the attention of local celebrity and radio host Daniel Okoro. Daniel, keen to mine a controversial issue for all its worth, invites Sali to the station to discuss promoting her cause, but instead ambushes her with an on-air interview. Despite this, Sali’s points register to listeners, especially after video of her calling Daniel out for his shamelessness is posted online. Sali begins to receive calls for help from across the country.

Episode 2 Episode 3

Meanwhile, a much younger girl, Adi, has a bright future ahead of herself as well, despite her meager circumstances. She studies above her grade level, borrowing Physics textbooks from her teachers, and dreaming up plans to one day make it in the city. Adi, like Sali, is committed, smart, and defiant. None of this matters in the face of her father’s decision to have her marry his boss, and leave home. He believes he is giving her a better life, despite her objections. So, her future is decided for her; she will be a wife, and one day a mother. That day comes sooner than expected.

We learn more about each of the girls as the plot progresses, imbuing commentary on self-actualization, and the theft thereof, with the context on child marriage meant to reach viewers. As for craft, Vaillante has better production values then is typical for a non-commercial venture, and Mouna Loueke, who plays Adi, is a genuine talent. The show’s creators, Tom and James Collins, seem disinterested in playing manipulative narrative games to keep up the conventions of television drama, recognizing the inherent pull these human stories have. When music swells, or a revelation makes itself known, these devices are purposeful, and to some extent an inevitable element of exploring child marriage and its legacy to the fullest.

It seems apparent that this is a story told by people intensely involved in this matter, and though Vaillante does not shy from its tough subject matter, it is not explicit and can be watched for free on YouTube, making it an excellent option to educate students. Spreading awareness for this all-too-real issue through the format of a fictional drama may seem counterintuitive, until you consider that Episode 1 of Vaillante is already the second most viewed video on UNICEF Africa’s channel. Storytelling is a powerful tool, and it should be wielded for a cause as important as this one more often.