Category Archives: Child brides

Less than One Percent

We live in a time of political triage, and in an environment characterized by blatant sexism and misogyny. It takes very little mental effort to know what that overlap generates – and where our laws, public policies, and politics choose to focus. Even with human rights, human dignity, and civility in the balance, we conclude that we cannot do it all. Through the fierce logic of cost-benefit utilitarian thinking, we decide to do what will benefit the greatest number at the least cost, with weight on the scales by the powerful elite interests. The issues that remain – the sea of waving petitions of the aggrieved – are simply deferred to an ill-defined future date, ignored, or swept aside. Not even self-interest will necessarily prevail; consider the 62% of white, non-college educated women who became Trump voters, surprisingly placing theirs and other women’s dignity and equality as a lower priority. But then we also live in a time where many of us are resigned to accept the way things are as being immutable, and a byproduct of the allegedly inherent self-serving nature of human beings (again, as reinforced by capitalist economics notions).

Until the Harvey Weinstein scandal.

Are we at a unique tipping point in our social norms? It’s still much too early to say, but any optimism that the age of gender equality and equity is fast approaching must be tempered by the recognition that men’s sexual harassment of women has been the norm throughout all of recorded history (except that such sexual harassment and violence has rarely been considered sufficiently noteworthy to be recorded). One need only reflect on the many people who were aware but who tolerated (or were compelled to stay silent about) the reprehensible behavior that was the standard operating procedure by Mr. Weinstein over more than three decades. So many powerful men have been called to account in the weeks that have followed; one might just dare to feel a twinge of vindication, a lightness in one’s step…but perhaps not yet.

Sexual harassment is, of course, but one form in the panoply of gendered manifestations of abuse of power and violence directed against women, girls, and marginalized persons which those of us in the feminist research world classify under the umbrella term “gender based violence” (GBV). That’s an especially large umbrella, with as many at 35% of the world’s women (or more than 1.3 billion female persons, for those who are moved by exceptionally large numbers) being subjected to sexual or physical violence in their lives – a fundamental disrespect of universal dignity and a gross violation of human rights. The most graphic examples of GBV consist of physical violence and emotional abuse – domestic violence, intimate partner violence, non-partner sexual violence, honor killings, forced and unwanted sex, early and forced marriage, female genital cutting, human trafficking, and the gendered deprivation of resources and rights. The vast majority of the perpetrators of such GBV enjoy impunity, either because those victimized remain silent (for many valid reasons), or because the rule-of-law and cultural institutions of governance almost always place a low priority on dealing with GBV. Is there an element of triage in choosing what kinds of crimes to prosecute? Or are certain human beings simply not deemed to be as important: women, girls, and marginalized persons? The fact that this victimized population constitutes more than half of humanity ought to be statistically significant, but such is not the case. Continue reading Less than One Percent

Only 700 million women

child marraige poster

“What would she do, anyway? It’s not like she has any real choices?”

Such is the cynical response I’ve often encountered, or variations thereof, when I’m moved by whatever furies impassion me on such occasions to advocate for an end to child marriage. It’s an odd counter argument, as if the normalization of a systemic wrong makes it acceptable – “natural” even. The way things ought to be.

But then again, no. Such cynics feel no need for “oughts” in their world view. “It’s just the way things are, dear.”

I’m writing this in New Delhi, India, a country which in terms of population size has the largest number of child brides on the planet. Granted, it is an uneven picture; in some Indian states there’s been remarkable progress in beginning to diminish this practice. Yet in other states, such as Bihar, the percentage of child marriages is over 60 per cent. It’s illegal, of course. India passed the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act back in 2006, but the political will to enforce this law or to otherwise effect change seems inadequate. A National Action Plan intended to prevent child marriage, drafted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, has languished since 2013 with no passage in sight. Indian jurisprudence simply cannot decide how to define child marriage. As they ponder, the practice continues.

India is hardly alone. Niger in west Africa holds the ignominious title of worst offender, where 76 per cent of women are married as children. It’s daunting for me to wrap my head around such numbers. Yet the numbers are both daunting and damning; over 700 million women in the world today were married as children. That’s more than five times the entire number of women and girls in my own country, the United States. If you are reading this in the United States, just look at any woman or girl and think of five. Do that again and again, each time you see another female. Your head will be spinning before long. It should be aching, not just spinning. This is a problem of remarkable proportions, yet how often is it discussed by the general public, or cited as a priority?

Almost never. Continue reading Only 700 million women

Disturbing news out of Kyrgyzstan


Most of us aren’t glued to the latest developments coming out of Bishkek. In fact, most people have no idea where Kyrgyzstan (officially the Kyrgyz Republic) even is. That’s unfortunate, because the recent trends in that Central Asian country reflect a scale of un-development and human rights backsliding that ought to be raising alarms around the world.

OK – for me this is also personal. I’ve had the pleasure to work in Kyrgyzstan once, and to come to know several wonderful Kyrgyz people. But even if you don’t have Kyrgyzstan in your history, take my word for it: the plight of more than half of the population of that country of 5.8 million people is approaching what any reasonable person would deem to be “desperate”.

Why the clarion call? Consider this: during its time as a Soviet Republic, many women in Kyrgyzstan enjoyed remarkable access to meaningful employment, especially those who were living in more urban areas where they were able to make their own decisions on the important choices in their lives (like who to marry, or whether to work in the formal economy). They were officially regarded as equal to men in their dignity, and despite a long history of pre-Soviet subjugation of women, many Kyrgyz women made prodigious progress.

And then the Soviet Union collapsed…

Since that time, the government of Kyrgyzstan has largely forsaken its role in the provision of basic public services. But much more worrying to me is the precipitous decline of women in the formal labor market there, with those involved in economic activity going from almost 82% (1991) to just 42% (2007), according to the World Bank. Kyrgyz men too are struggling, with a national unemployment rates of 40%. Employers are now largely unregulated and cavalier in their practices, which translates into a jobs economy that is anything but employee-friendly for Kyrgyz women.

And of course, as happens in so much of the world, Kyrgyz women who are in paid employment are still expected to shoulder all of the traditional domestic duties. Continue reading Disturbing news out of Kyrgyzstan

The Indignity of being Female


Afghan schoolgirls

As of tomorrow, I will have been back from Afghanistan two weeks. I keep thinking back to the sight – as viewed from the window of my heavily armored Land Cruiser – of young girls in their clean school uniforms bravely making their way home across the chaotic traffic that careened along Airport Road. I watched them as if I were seeing across a vast chasm of culture and time, and not only through bullet-proof glass. Who were these girls, and what are their prospects?

Two weeks is a short time, and the images and feelings from Kabul remain vibrant. My strongest Kabul memory is of the almost eerie feeling that came simply from being present in the country that many surveys distinguish as the worst country in the world in which to be a woman. That poignant awareness, overlaid with the sight of those school girls, led me to a bigger picture: the plight of the more than 15 million women of Afghanistan. Two weeks has done little to clarify those perplexing thoughts; I remain confounded and more than a little distressed.

Intellectually I can appreciate, at least at some level, that Afghan women and girls are so subjugated and disempowered and have been for so long that there’s precious little they can do on their own to reverse this deeply inequitable situation. The fact that their plight is now significantly better than it was in the days of the Taliban and the earlier Islamic State of Afghanistan almost doesn’t matter; when you remain so far below the human dignity threshold the incremental gains seem to carry less weight. But even if I make that allowance, I struggle to understand why Afghan men and boys would allow all of this to happen, or at least to continue. Are their relationships with their grandmothers, mothers, wives, sisters, nieces, daughters, and granddaughters really so different than ours that this extraordinary disequilibrium between the sexes is perceived to be acceptable, or in any way desirable?

Let me take a few steps back. “All of this”? “Extraordinary disequilibrium”? Over the past few decades Afghanistan has been thoroughly studied, and the story that emerges – well, that jumps out – from the data is deeply disturbing to me.  An estimated 70 percent of marriages in Afghanistan were forced upon the brides. Despite laws on the books forbidding it, more than half of all Afghan brides continue to be younger than the legal marriage age of 16 (or 15 with a guardian’s and a court’s approval – the girl’s approval is irrelevant). And what’s life like for Afghan women after marriage? An Afghan wife has little say in how many children she bears, or when. One Afghan woman dies in childbirth every thirty minutes, leaving that country with the tragic distinction of having the highest maternal mortality rate in the world. Afghan girls are also discouraged, sometimes “terminally”, from seeking an education. Domestic violence is so common that 87 per cent of Afghan women admit to experiencing it (and a significant proportion of that domestic violence is instigated by the mother-in-law). The number of honor killings and sexual assaults has increased in almost every part of the country; based on statistics collected during the past five years an estimated 150 cases of honor killing occur annually.

Even for Afghan women who are not married, the realities are often grim. Afghan rape victims can be forced, by law, to marry their attacker. According to reports from reputable NGOs, hundreds of thousands of Afghan women continue to suffer abuse at the hands of their husbands, fathers, brothers, armed individuals, parallel legal systems, and institutions of state, such as the police and justice systems. No Afghan law specifically prohibits sexual harassment, and while Afghan law does stipulate that workplace discrimination between women and men is not allowed, that prohibition does not include equal pay for equal work. And of course the March 2015 mob execution of Farkhunda Malikzada remains fresh in our collective memories; killed after being falsely accused of burning a Koran. The vehemence of her execution was and remains unnerving: she was stoned to death, her body was run over by a car, and then she was set on fire. Justice in this case remains elusive, as an Afghan appeals court subsequently set aside the death sentences of four men who participated in the mob killing.

So, perhaps it’s no surprise that Afghanistan is the only country in the world in which the female suicide rate is higher than that of males. Continue reading The Indignity of being Female