“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?
Still, it would be an injustice to portray this as a problem that is festering unaddressed. Organizations such as UNICEF, and initiatives such as Girls Not Brides, are among multiple international actors working this issue for all it’s worth. Innumerable national NGOs and community based organizations (CBOs) are also engaged almost everywhere. Organizations such as my own International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) relentlessly pursue research on this challenge, hoping to raise awareness, influence policy, and see the numbers start to decline. And they are; the global rate of child marriage for girls between the ages of 13 to 15 is coming down, which is heartening when one thinks of the high rates of maternal mortality for girls giving birth in this age bracket. Unfortunately, however, the global rates of child marriage are increasing for girls between 15 and 18. We’re far away from winning this fight for universal human dignity.
Despite the numbers screaming their truth at us, the gravity of the situation is not sufficiently understood. Child marriage is perceived by and large as a woman’s problem. The vast majority of those attending the relevant conferences, working in the associated NGOs and research bodies, or advocating in the media on this issue are women. Typically governments relegate the issue to their Ministry of Gender (or whatever it is called in their country), which is almost always among the least influential and least well funded of all ministries. The men who hold fast to the reins of power are seldom to be seen.
It is indeed a woman’s problem, and more specifically a girl’s problem. Yet to the extent that anyone holds any real commitment to the universality of human dignity, it is a problem for all humanity. Universality of dignity, and the infrastructure of human rights created to achieve and sustain dignity for all, may have theoretical purchase for many. In practice, however, we tolerate indignity. We even expect it. And we all know what becomes of issues classified as “women’s problems” in a man’s world.
There’s an analogy I am all too directly aware of, when I reflect on what happens to LGBTQI problems in this patriarchal, heteronormative, transphobic world. We in the LGBTQI community are and will remain a small and marginalized minority. We know we must fight tooth-and-nail for our dignity to be respected, because in a world of political-economy analysis, we don’t really matter. But wait – the world is 51 per cent female – this is no longer a marginalized minority but a marginalized majority! If child marriage data are used as an indicator of respect for human dignity, that female half of the world also doesn’t really matter. That ought to be a sobering thought, even to those wedded to viewing the world solely through political-economy factors. Or especially to them…a world structured on maximizing money and power simply shrugs and counts such girls as collateral damage.
Do those of us who are marginalized matter? Does it matter that girls born to poor families in societies structured around rigid traditional gender roles come to see their young daughters – but not their sons – as financial liabilities? Even more perniciously, in my view, is the presumption among too many parents in many societies that an adolescent girl must be married off promptly lest she become sexually active outside of wedlock (whether through her consent, or through rape) and “bring dishonor” upon the family. Patriarchy is hard-wired to control women’s and girls’ sexuality. The drivers of child marriage are many, and often difficult to isolate, but one fact remains. Girls who are married under the age of 18 have no choice in the single biggest decision in their lives. Even in cases where a girl appears to consent, or has been socially conditioned to expect and submissively assent to child marriage, a rational adult decision on such a central component of one’s life is not a decision which any child can make. Anyone under the age of 18 is a child, and should be respected, protected, and cherished as such.
So here I sit, an American woman in a New Delhi hotel room, criticizing this complex country that I know so little about. I cannot even fall back on my own country as an exemplar; just recently New Jersey’s Republican Governor Chris Christie vetoed a state bill intended to prevent child marriage in his state. New Jersey has no minimum age for marriage, yet when legislators tried to remedy this absurdity, Governor Christie perceived this as a threat to religious liberties.
And he is right; it is. And it ought to be.
No religion, no set of cultural values, and no patriarchal norms should be allowed to override secular commitment to universal human dignity. Hearts, minds, and spirits must change. It is one thing to outlaw child marriage. It is another thing altogether to transform cultural and religious norms so that girls are viewed as equal in dignity and worth as boys. Opportunities follow education, and girls who get the chance to complete their education find an ever-expanding horizon of opportunities before them.
What do we have to do to make this change happen? What do we lose every day that it fails to happen? How do we measure the intensity and meaning of lost opportunity, diminished agency, and eroded self-respect as it affects millions? How do we learn to look at the bright spark in each individual girl’s eyes and honor her humanity? Answers are elusive, and change is painfully (and tragically) slow, but we cannot turn away from such questions.
Girls deserve better than this. How can that be so hard to understand?