Child Marriage

A prized rite that every girl must undergo at a young age, the result of poverty, destiny, life’s role … too many young girls are forced to marry too young.

The International Centre for Research on Women gives the following statistics:

  • One third of girls in the developing world are married before the age of 18 and 1 in 9 are married before the age of 15.
  • In 2010, 67 million women 20-24 around the world had been married before the age of 18.
  • If present trends continue, 142 million girls will be married before their 18th birthday over the next decade. That’s an average of 14.2 million girls each year.
  • While countries with the highest prevalence of child marriage are concentrated in Western and Sub-Saharan Africa, due to population size, the largest number of child brides reside in South Asia.[1]

Research indicates that economics plays a significant role in the early marriage with girls from poorer households more than twice as likely to marry young than girls from higher income families. Girls with higher education are also less likely to marry at a younger age. The impact of women’s marginalisation economically and in education has consequences for generations.

For girls who are married young the consequences can be devastating. Girls younger than fifteen are five times more likely to die in childbirth, with pregnancy being the leading cause of their early death. Violence seems to stalk girls who are married young, with those who marry before eighteen more likely to experience domestic violence than their peers who marry later. Girls who have been married young show symptoms of sexual abuse and stress that is associated with marital life.

It is not just a question of alleviating poverty, though that is an essential step, nor of increasing educational opportunities for girls, though girls should be given access to education; underlying these issues are questions about attitudes to women. Whereas Ban Ki Moon has urged recognition of child marriages as a key indicator in female empowerment, tackling the roots of female marginalisation is necessary alongside measures to protect young girls who are most vulnerable.

[1] http://www.icrw.org/child-marriage-facts-and-figures

Watch this Video on Child Marriage

The Limits of Human Rights

Violence in the home was for many years seen as a private family matter, and there are still contexts where that is at least the cultural and social norm. Both legal and religious systems, across cultural contexts, sanctioned male domination and control of their women. It was during the second feminist movement in the United States that a paradigm shift began. Domestic violence began to be viewed as a political and social issue.

This led to a language of intervention, one that has shifted the focus to the need for a societal response. Framing domestic violence as a human rights issue came from the work of activists to heighten understanding that domestic violence was a serious problem.

The language of human rights has a weakness however. Elizabeth Gerhardt has argued in her book, ‘The Cross and Gendercide[1], that viewing violence against women as a human rights issue presents it in a more wholistic perspective because it takes into account a wide range of related issues. She argues that the language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides whole life frame of reference from which to respond.

As a description of the problem, this may be correct, to a point. However, the all-encompassing nature of the categories of the declaration, fails to wrestle with the nuances of women’s lives, the multiple layers that cannot be consumed under singular categories. Lila Abu-Lughod asserts in her book, ‘Do Muslim Women Need Saving?[2]’, that the layers of women’s lives are ignored in discourses that homogenise their issues. She argues that women are constantly negotiating the terrain of their lives in ways that belie the categorisation of their issues under the common categories used by those who want to enact change for women.

Human rights has given focus to the challenges that women face, and provided a language that the world understands. What it fails to do is provide links into women’s every day lived experience, to their realities. There is a dissonance for women whose lives must be lived by negotiating daily their experiences and the contingencies with which they live.

[1] Gerhardt, Elizabeth, The cross and Gendercide: A Theological Response to Global Violence Against Women and Girls, Downers Grove, Intervarsity Academic, 2014

[2] Abu-Lughod, Lila, Do Muslim Women Need Saving, Cambridge, Havard University Press, 2013