Child marriage is common. In many parts of the world, a high percentage of girls get married before adulthood – boys seemed to be spared from this particular type of injustice. But why is it an injustice? Us western intellectual folk tend to assume without much consideration that it is, and that arguments in favor of the practice – often based on culture and cultural relativism – are criminally wrong. Here I want to offer a few reasons for calling it an injustice, reasons that go somewhat beyond a mere reflexive rejection.
But before I do that, some numbers:
- Although the practice is in decline, the numbers are still very high: in the whole of the developing world, more than 1/3 of women aged 20 to 24 report that they were married or in union before they reached 18 years of age (2/3 in some countries, such as Niger). 1 in 9 are married before age 15.
- In absolute numbers, India has most child brides (women aged 20 to 24 who were married before age 18): more than 10 million. That’s 1/6 of the world total.
- Each year, more than 10 million children are forced into marriage.
- The practice is indeed highly coercive. Not only on the girls who hardly ever have a say in the matter – these are often arranged marriages – but also on the parents of the girls. One indication of this is the fact that child marriage is more prevalent among the poorer sections of societies: households in the poorest quintiles are 3 to 4 times more likely to marry off their daughters than households in the richest quintiles. The rural rate is double the urban rate. It’s not unlikely that money is an incentive here.
- The practice not only has economic causes but also cultural ones. Some families sell off their daughters as a way of settling debts; others as a means to assuage disputes and to forge communal relationships. Cultural beliefs about purity and dishonor are important drivers as well. A symptom of the cultural origins is the fact that in 50 countries the minimum legal age of marriage is lower for females than for men.
Now, apart from the coercion involved in the practice, what else is wrong with it?
- If we don’t want to call it pedophilia, let’s at least accept that the risk of sexual abuse is a lot higher than in your typical adult marriage. Add to that the physical harm resulting from pregnancies. When girls have babies before their bodies are mature enough, they are at risk of death from hemorrhaging, obstructed labor and other complications.
- Child brides, whether mother or not, are typically excluded from education. So countries with a high prevalence of child marriages and child mothers also tend to have low literacy and schooling rates for young women:
- Low schooling rates for girls have of course a knock-on effect on gender equality in later life. This then becomes a vicious circle. When girls and women aren’t allowed to become educated and independently prosperous, parents are quick to conclude that the best option for their daughters is an early marriage.