Challenging the Social Value of Child Marriage

Photo by Stephanie Sinclair for National Geographic. Two child brides are pictured with their older husbands in Yemen.

By Zuleyka Zevallos

The 11th of October 2012 was the inaugural Day of the Girl. This year, the focus was on the eradication of child marriage. Around the world, 70 million girls were married before they reached the age of 18. My post today explores how the interrelated issues of gender, education and child marriage might be addressed by sociology. My focus is primarily on girl brides. While young boys are also married, the research I review shows that the adverse effects of child marriage have chronic health and socio-economic impact on young girls. The “value” attached to child brides refers to the cultural and economic issues underlying child marriage. Young girls are married off according to dominant beliefs about preserving women’s “honour” (that is, ensuring virginity before marriage), as well as the costs of raising girls. Child marriage has been linked to people trafficking in extreme situations. In most other cases it maintains the status quo in poor or underdeveloped areas, where economic deprivation is used to justify men’s dominance over young women’s reproductive and life choices. In order to eliminate child marriage, communities need to be shown practical demonstrations that delaying marriage increases everyone’s welfare.

Global overview of child marriage

United Nations: Percentage of women aged 20-24 in 2000-2010 who had married by age 18 in countries where the minimum legal age at marriage without parental consent is 18 years or older

The practice of child marriage transcends religion, ethnicity and nationality, as it is found in every region of the world. It is, however, a highly gendered practice that overwhelmingly affects girls. The United Nations finds that the rate of child marriage has dropped over the past 40 years. Nevertheless, in 2011, 20% of young women in 39 countries had married by the time they were 18 and in an additional 20 countries at least 10% married before age 15. As the UN graphic shows (on the right), child marriage is most common in Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Mali, Mozambique and Nepal, where over half of all young women had married before they turned 18.

The UN reports that only two countries have a relatively high rate of young boys who were married before the age of 18. As the UN does not cite these countries, I looked at their data source, The World Marriage Data 2008. I focused on the data for men and women ever married who were aged 15 to 19 years.* (See the image below right – click to enlarge.) The UN data show that only Mali and Nepal have relatively notable boy marriage rates of 10%. Additionally, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Ecuador and Nicaragua have boy marriage rates over 6%. Most other developing countries have rates of boy marriage that more or less approximate the boy marriage rates in Western countries (around 1% in most cases and predominantly lower than 5%).

In July 2012, the Times of India (TOI) reported that boy marriage rates in  Madhya Pradesh have recently increased. Data released by the Annual Health Survey identifies that 19% of boys in this region had married before the legal age of 21 years, while 12.5% of girls in the same region married before the legal age for women (18 years). The UN data I reviewed (admittedly older data from 2008), shows that the national child marriage rates in India include over one quarter of girls aged 15-19 years compared to 5% of boys of the same age.

Child marriage rates for selected countries. Data modified from the UN Marriage Data 2008 by Other Sociologist

The table right also shows that there is a large gender discrepancy in countries that have a large rate of girl marriage. For example, in Mali, around half of all girls aged 15-19 had been married in the mid-2000s, compared to only 4% of their male counterparts. In comparison, economically advanced English-majority countries generally have low rates of child marriage, from less than 1% in Australia to 6% for the USA, with young girls having twice the rate of child marriage than men. The highest rate is in the Virgin Islands: 8% women and 6% for men. (Click here to see the data.)

Sociologists have shown that child marriage leads to other social problems that require regionally-specific solutions. Child brides are denied the right to education and their health and quality of life are significantly compromised, as they face a high risk of violence, contracting HIV, premature pregnancies, and various birth complications such as vaginal damage (obstetric fistula). Young brides are more likely to die during labour than older mothers.

International campaigns by well-meaning non-government-groups focus on health and increasing basic education for girls. Other socio-economic issues affecting child brides are not always addressed adequately.

Child marriage, education and social change

Mauritanian sociologist Sidi Mohamed Ould Jyyide has reported that in recent years, selling young brides has become more common among urban poor families in Mauritania. The demand for child brides had sparked a new people trafficking market by the mid-2000s.  These child marriages are not recorded officially so they are difficult to address via legal frameworks. In such cases social policies addressing poverty and education are required to shift family practices.

Photo by Stephanie Sinclair for National Geographic.

In another example, Indian sociologist Biswajit Ghosh conducted fieldwork in Malda district of North Bengal, India. He finds that in rural areas, communities have limited access to quality education and basic infrastructure. In Malda, it is difficult to send children to school, even though younger people show a strong interest in their education. This is especially problematic for Muslim communities, whose nearest religious school produces poor examination results amongst students, and so parents don’t see this investment in their children’s education to be worth the trouble. Moreover, poverty and lack of infrastructure serve to maintain the belief that education is worthless. Community and religious elders hold patriarchal views about family honour. Girls’ education delays marriage and so it is construed as negatively impacting girls’ welfare, family honour and as a threat to society more widely. Ghosh surveyed 380 fathers, mothers, elders and girls in Malda. He finds that 90% of parents and elders believed that marriage is “essential for girls,” primarily because they fear girls might elope without proper permission, as well as their concern about girls’ “social security” (economic and social protection). Preserving a young girl’s virginity before marriage is central to the honour ideal which prioritises marriage over education.

Ghosh’s research identifies that many community members had been in contact with international aid workers who had explained the health problems associated with child marriage. In many cases, locals knew it was illegal to organise the marriage of a young girl. Ghosh finds that legal sanctions and international campaigns to end child marriage are dismissed at the local level because they do not connect to people’s material experiences. Ghosh writes:

such campaigns are not taken seriously and knowledge about the negative consequences of early marriage is underplayed as ‘aberrations’ as many of the existing mothers were married much early. Experience of these mothers seems to create a moral basis for marrying their daughters early. Hence, the logic of late marriage propagated by health workers and others do not produce any visible results.

Caste issues complicate education interventions to end child marriage. Ghosh finds that girls from upper Hindu families are able to delay marriage as they focus on education, but the Muslim girls who generally come from poorer families have less bargaining power with their parents. Some girls who are exceeding at school are unhappy at the prospect of marrying young as they prefer to finish their studies. Unfortunately, their overall marriage prospects in the long term are constrained. One girl Ghosh spoke to had excellent marks at school but she found that her education was elevating her social status, but this had the negative effect of excluding her from most marriage prospects. Young men who were less literate required a poor dowry that reflected negatively on the girl’s family. (Dowry is the money, land or assets that a girl’s family offers the groom in order to marry.) Young men who could match the girl’s level of education required too high a dowry. The lack of employment opportunities for women, and the material reality faced by poor communities make it seem as if early marriage is a source of protection.

Young Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai. Image via MWC News.

In some communities, education is seen to weaken the institution of marriage and it undermines men’s authority. Education is therefore constructed as a threat to the established social order. This was exemplified recently by the tragic case of 14 year old Malala Yousufzai, an education activist living in Pakistan. Yousufzai has campaigned tirelessly for the right to attend school in a rural area where marriage is viewed as being more important for girls than education. The terrorist group Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) had publicly identified Yousufzai as a target due to her advocacy.  Yousufzai had been attending school after reaching international acclaim but she was shot last week. In their analysis of Yousafzai’s case, the Daily Maverick made a connection between child marriage, education and violent resistance to social change. Author Khadija Patel reports that only one in three girls in rural Pakistan has attended school:

Researchers claim poverty, crowded classes, outmoded teaching methods, and dilapidated school buildings are to blame for the poor enrolment of girls. Parents are reluctant to send their daughters to schools without sanitation facilities, and many view early marriage as a higher priority for their daughters than an education.

Achieving change in child marriage is impeded by socio-economic issues, such as location (rural and urban-poor), access to resources, income and language. Sociological lessons might assist policy makers and activists make a targeted impact.

How to affect change?

The United Nations is seeking to end child marriage by 2030. International agencies often focus on raising community awareness on the legalities and health benefits of education in the quest to eradicate child marriage. This approach has limited impact as information campaigns about education do not match the material and cultural reality of local communities, particularly in urban poor areas or in rural districts. The demand for child brides can have adverse effects beyond individuals and families, such as in the poor city areas in Mauritania where trafficking child brides has become an illicit business. In rural areas, educating girls delays marriage and it can make it more difficult for poor families to negotiate marriage after education is completed. This makes it seem as if education is a threat to the institution of marriage and to family honour. In the Indian district of West Bengal, problems in organising effective delivery of education and tangible employment outcomes only gives more credence to religious and community elders who argue that marriage undermines society.

Change can only occur with international agencies, national governments and local grassroots groups working together in practical ways. The tensions between girls’ right to education versus their obligation to marry is not simply about gender. Lack of access to quality education makes it difficult to invest resources that are already lacking into sending girls away to attend school in other regions. In this setting, economic necessity and cultural norms about family honour and protection trump the knowledge that child marriage is illegal.

Ending child marriage clearly requires stronger policing of laws around the world. Moreover, addressing poverty is critical. Improving the enrolments of girls in schools requires better facilities in close proximity to rural and urban-poor communities, including qualified teachers who can inspire learning. Education has to be demonstrated to have local applicability. It is not simply enough to educate children. Communities need to see concrete examples that education leads to jobs and practical skills that increase everyone’s quality of life.

Ghosh argues that microfiance schemes might be one way to support girls and their families to delay marriage, by providing loans, subsidies and cash. Such economic incentives might help women establish their own businesses and generate other employment opportunities. Ghosh’s fieldwork exemplifies how promoting education as a means for vocational and entrepreneurship training is particularly effective. Through improved education delivery, schools can become a vehicle for delaying child marriage. Providing regular training sessions for parents and community leaders at the school would also help generate further support. Schools need to be supported in showcasing not just the exam scores of their pupils, but also how the tangible skills children learn will better the socio-economic relations of their society.

Notes

*Focusing solely on girls aged 15-19 years means that the data I present is lower than the UN report cited earlier. Women in other age groups may also have been married as children, but as I had no way of separating child brides from those married after the age of 18, I have excluded women in all other age groups. The data offer only approximates but the international comparisons are still insightful. I note that exploring boy marriage rates in more depth would be a useful contrast to the existing empirical literature that is mostly focused on girls.

Learn more

  • The United Nations have established various programs in different regions to address the issue of child marriage.
  • “No where in the world should it be an act of bravery for a young girl to go to school.” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, 11 October 2012 UN Webcast “Ending Child Marriage”. Photo via Economic Forum on Flickr. Text: The Other Sociologist.

    Watch the 11 October 2012 United Nations webcast on Ending Child Marriage, where UN Secretary-General where Ban-Ki Moon spoke about 14 year old Malala Yousufzai as a critical example for why educating girls in a safe environment is the key ending child marriage.

  • Read more on the International Girl Child Day’s focus on Child Marriage by visiting the United NationsUnicef; or visit the global campaign Girls not Brides.
  • Watch the excellent short video below by the Pulitzer Centre, based around photojournalist Stephanie Sinclair‘s work with young girl brides. (Trigger Warning: Rape is discussed)

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