On a warm, breezy evening in 1941, my grandmother was one of three brides married in her uncle’s large, stone home on the island of Zanzibar, in what is now Tanzania. Having only a fourth grade education (which, among many other things, lacked a comprehensive sex education program), there was much about life–what it could be, and what one could want from it–which my grandmother was unaware. On the night of her wedding, as her aunts prepared her for the ceremony, they offered what little advice propriety allowed them to: “Don’t resist what he is going to do to you.” How ominous. Not even empowered with a basic understanding of what sex was, this young girl was essentially sold to a seventeen-year-old stranger. She was twelve.
Today, in the developing world, between 20 percent and 70 percent of young women marry before the age of 18. Many do not choose their spouses, and many enter into these marriages against their will, or with immense social pressure from elders. While marriage laws vary considerably, and some countries have laws in place setting minimum age requirements for marriage, these laws are easily circumvented through the use of “parental consent” clauses, or blatantly ignored, especially in rural areas. Despite the time that has passed since my grandmother’s marriage, social, cultural, and economic factors still keep the practice alive. Many families marry their daughters off to alleviate the financial strain of supporting them, to ensure the ‘preservation of their virginity’ upon marriage, or to form social alliances with other families.
The reality is that child marriage is a violation of young women’s rights to reproductive and sexual freedom, and functions in a myriad of ways, to deter them from exercising their own agency, and living fulfilled lives. Girls who are coerced into child marriage are in greater peril of experiencing domestic violence and sexual abuse and are more likely to believe that such practices are at times, justifiable. They are also at greater risk of contracting HIV and other STDs, and as a result of social pressure to exhibit fertility, are less likely to use contraception, or even know how. As a result, these children often become parents. But because their bodies have not yet fully matured, child brides are at risk for age-related complications during pregnancy and childbirth, such as obstruction and gynecological fistula.
Overwhelmingly, child brides are denied access to education and often find themselves under the control of their husband’s family, a reality which functions to both isolate them from their own social networks, and further decrease their power in negotiations regarding their decision making, freedom of movement, and reproductive health. Given the extent of their education, many child brides additionally face limitations to entering the paid labor force, and as a result, many are at increased risk of personal insecurity when faced with divorce.
It is clear that reducing the incidence of child marriage requires a great shift in governmental policy, as well as an effort to engage local community leaders in a dialogue about the best interests of their female citizens. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), recommends increasing access to education for girls and extending the time that schooling is mandatory by law, as a means of delaying marriage and providing young girls with “substantive skills-enhancing programmes and opportunities,” during the increased gap between the onset of puberty and marriage. Additionally, policy makers must make strides to set legal minimum marriage ages, as well as efforts to enforce these restrictions and punish those who attempt to force their children into child marriages.
Still, as I look to the past, and see my own experience as part of a legacy of women whose rights have been consistently denied, I see that beyond changing policy, a real shift needs to occur in altering cultural attitudes about the value of women. My grandmother was raised in a world where women were traded like goods–where their age, virginity, race, and perceived “attractiveness” were indicators of exchange value. Any good girl was taught to want to get married, to want to assume their proper role in this microcosm of patriarchy, and that it was simply right to have their own needs, desires, and ideas, quashed, in the interest of preserving peace within the system. The only occasional alternative was spinsterhood, an option fraught with the horrors of social scorn and economic uncertainty, and in the case of forced child marriage, not an option at all. Looking around at the world today, it is hard not to see how much a woman’s worth is still so contingent upon embodying these ideals and fulfilling these same socially imposed obligations.
We, as a global community, need to empower young girls not only with education and policy designed to protect their best interests, but also with a seat at the table in the process of shaping this policy and affecting cultural change. Young girls need to know that they are people–both members of a community and individuals in their own right. Although it can prove challenging to tease away institutions such as marriage from the social, cultural, and economic realities that shape them, cultural relativism can no longer be used as an excuse for perpetuating traditions and practices that deny individuals their human rights. So many young girls who have experienced child marriage, and suffered its many consequences, have never been afforded the opportunity to envisage life any other way. Perhaps the greatest way we can inspire futures is by providing girls with an alternative, and with the ability to shape their own.