Child Marriage: Putting Women Before Tradition
by Devin Lee
Earlier this year, news outlets and human rights organizations around the world rallied to criticize a controversial law passed by the parliament of Bangladesh, which allows for children under the age of 18 to marry under “special circumstances” with the permission of a local court and the bride’s or groom’s parents, though such situations are not clearly defined and there is no mention of a minimum age or of the child’s consent. This is expected to most severely impact the young women of Bangladesh, 52% of whom are married by the age of 18, and 18% married by the age of 15, despite existing age restrictions. Now, with a law passed that allows such marriages to become legally valid, many fear that the problem will only get worse. Activist Soumya Guha of Plan International wrote in an article for Al Jazeera that “this special provision is not only a step backwards for the eradication of child marriage in the country, but also demonstrates a harmful violation of a child’s right to be heard, informed and involved in decisions that impact on her life.”
Stories like these are surely not unique to countries like Bangladesh. Though they may cause controversy, such laws exist in many countries around the world, including the United States. In fact, the state of New York actually allows for children as young as 14 to marry with parental and judicial approval. Alhough Governor Cuomo and several members of the state legislature have recently called for a repeal of the law that sets the minimum age for marriage at 17, there has been some pushback from the state’s religious and cultural communities that have a tradition of marrying young. This is common in discussions of such marriage laws, as one must consider that such policies may derive from a biased Western perspective, and might be interpreted as prejudiced or oppressive to minority groups. Ultimately, this gives rise to serious questions regarding the right of communities to practice cultural and religious expression, especially when it seems that such expression may come into conflict with the individual rights of women.
It would be irresponsible and frankly arrogant to simply disregard the context in which many child marriages occur throughout the world. There are many communities, some encompassing single neighborhoods and others entire countries, that have a long-standing tradition of getting married at a young age. Such traditions are often rooted in the religious demographics of the community, so it is only natural that these traditions should be deeply ingrained in the system of values and expectations that these people uphold. Despite the common Western narrative that highly religious, and specifically non-Christian, communities are oppressive to their members, many men and women within these communities often engage in their traditions willingly and happily. One cannot disregard all marriages of people under 18 as the product of forceful coercion, because to do so would also mean disregarding the cultures that encourage or allow such relationships.
However, protecting and promoting the status of women is still necessary in every society. Women are, in one way or another, considered inferior in essentially every culture on the planet. Women are always vulnerable to the established gender roles of their cultures. Young people are also almost inherently dependent on their families and their communities for emotional, financial, and educational support. Inevitably, this means that young women are placed in an especially compromising position when it comes to deviating from the cultural systems that place expectations on them, leaving little room for personal autonomy. Beyond that, The New York Times has reported, in regards to the current law in New York, that “The young women are far more likely than those who delay marriage to stop their educations, suffer economically, and become victims of domestic violence”. Even if there are girls who gladly make the choice to marry young, the external factors which may affect their situation are simply too powerful and the possible outcomes too dangerous to ignore.
There is no doubt that religious and cultural communities have a right to practice their traditions. But that right only stands when all members of the community are conscientiously and willingly participating in those traditions. Laws permitting underage marriage necessarily violate that principle, whether it’s in Bangladesh or New York. The pressures that young women face offer far too many opportunities for coercion and force, and it is therefore irresponsible to allow for legal validation of any relationship that has the power to bind them to serious lifelong obligations, such as marriage.