In 2015, I attended the first ever Girls’ Summit on Ending Child Marriage in Africa. Soon after, I wrote about my experience for Girls’ Globe.
The event was inspiring and highlighted 4 key areas of action: education, economic empowerment, involving traditional leaders, and valuing the girl child. For this year’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, I would like to reflect on lessons learned in 2015. How has advocacy surrounding child marriage progressed over the past 4 years?
Child marriage robs girls of their futures, violates their rights and impedes on the development of their countries. It is a form of gender-based violence rooted in inequality.
The number of child brides around the world is estimated at 650 million. This includes girls already married and women who were married in childhood. South Asia has the highest number of child brides, followed by sub-Saharan Africa. Although the practice of child marriage has declined around the world, no region is currently on track to eliminate child marriage by 2030 as outlined by Sustainable Development Goal 5.
However, through multi-sector partnerships, significant strides have been made. In 2016, UNICEF and UNFPA launched a global program to tackle child marriage in 12 countries. The Global Program to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage supports nations in providing life skills, education, community awareness, and national plans of action to prevent child marriage.
Reflecting on the lessons learned from the summit, it is clear that there are many contributing factors that influence child marriage. Education, economic empowerment, and community involvement remain key to ending the practice. But efforts cannot remain independent.
Single-sector interventions have proven insuccessful in the past. For instance, many countries have yet to outlaw child marriage by setting the legal age for marriage at 18 (or above) for both girls and boys. Even in countries that do have legislation, additional policies and interventions are required to enforce the law and ensure compliance.
Moving forward, in order to end child marriage by 2030, global progress needs to occur at a rate 12 times faster than that of the past decade.
To achieve this, countries must commit to increased financial and legislative support as well as prioritize strengthened partnerships across all sectors. Child marriage is a form of violence which disproportionally affects girls and puts them at huge risk of future violence throughout their lives. To eliminate gender-based violence, we have to end child marriage.
In my society, I believe that men have a tendency to feel threatened by the competitiveness of women. This is mainly because in Zimbabwe, men are traditionally regarded as the head of the family. Boys are awarded better education opportunities than girls are as a way to expand their horizons and increase their ability to take care of their own families in future. Tradition stipulates that girls are supposed to get married at a certain age, and therefore much time is spent grooming them to become ‘better’ wives – which in reality means more submissive wives. Of course, this means that they won’t be able to discover the endless possibilities that the world has to offer.
The tendency for some men to feel threatened by the competitiveness of women is supported by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie. In her essay ‘We Should All Be Feminists‘, she talks about“the insecurity triggered by how boys are brought up, how their sense of self-worth is diminished if they are not ‘naturally’ in charge as men”.
I have used Adichie’s words to help me think about how Zimbabwean society in particular teaches women not to be competitive.
Traditionally, my society teaches females from a tender age that if they want to get married, they should be loyal and they should not try to exercise power because men hate competition – especially from their wives. This generalization means that women end up sacrificing a lot for fear of rejection or punishment. Socialization plays a key role in determining the competitiveness of women and girls, and so it’s important to empower girls with knowledge in the early stages of their lives through awareness campaigns and education, so that they are not limited by outdated social beliefs in their futures.
Religion also plays a role in sabotaging women’s efforts to empower themselves. Christianity teaches women to learn things quietly, never to argue and to be submissive. In the Christian Bible, Timothy 2:11-12, it says, “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man, rather, she is to remain quiet”.
The tradition amongst Zezuru/Shona people in Zimbabwe is that women and girls must kneel down when greeting or serving food to their husbands or elders as a sign of showing respect. This tradition glorifies men and renders women and girls inferior and weak. I believe that religion and tradition are being used by society as an opium to make women docile and less competitive. Each time a woman wants to be more assertive, she is reminded that by doing so she’ll be breaking both religious and traditional laws.
To illustrate further, lineage descends through the males and not the females, which is why families rejoice more upon the birth of a male child compared to a female. A male child guarantees the continuity of the lineage, whereas girls move to the household of their husbands when they marry and change their surnames. This contributes to stifling female ambition as some husbands and in-laws won’t allow a woman to continue with her career after marriage, regardless of how educated or driven she is.
From my perspective as a young woman here in Zimbabwe, it’s clear to me that our societal traditions and norms play such a crucial role in making women and girls less competitive and less ambitious than they might otherwise be. Society must therefore be the primary agent of change by enabling and encouraging girls and women to be more independent. Boys and girls are all born competitive, but social constructs favor men over women and make us believe that these are ‘natural’ differences between males and females.
India – a country of contrasts – shows you a myriad of colours. It is home to many highly educated and intelligent people, as well as to many who are illiterate, poor, hungry and troubled. India boasts the beautiful Himalayas, deep blue seas, green forests and glistening rivers, but also acres of slums and dry and parched lands.
The country is also famous for its big, fat Indian weddings – a major and thriving industry. But in India, the dowry system is an ever-present menace which frequently changes shape to adapt to society. Increasingly, dowry is being masked by more socially acceptable norms, such as gift-giving.
A car for your daughter to travel in.
A house for your daughter to live comfortably in.
Gold jewellery to give her security in the future.
These lines by a groom’s family mask dowry demands as gifts. How difficult would it be to understand that this was extortion? The bride’s family had no intention of giving such ‘gifts’ to their daughter. But now they have been made to make them!
The girl’s family may find it easy to turn a blind eye, and to tell themselves that they are simply gifting their daughter. Who else did they earn money for all their life? Their daughter needs to get married after all! It is the most important identity for a woman. She may be well educated, earning enough to feed an entire family, raising the bar at her workplace, but if she’s unmarried she is viewed by many as incomplete.
For some, it ends on the wedding day. The groom and his family’s ego have been appeased. The newlyweds go on to live a happy life. But for some others, the demands continue. The first festival, the first child, the naming ceremony, the first house that the new couple build, and at every other occasion – the bride’s family must gift again. Sweets, clothes, gold, cash – the list is endless. If the parents are unable to provide, the woman is often packed off back to her mother’s house, not to return till the demands are met. Some are physically and emotionally abused; beaten, starved and even burnt.
India has had a long battle against dowry – an unsuccessful one. Legislations have been made and amended. But the practice seems to be growing. It has spared no economic or social group. The battle lines must now be altered. What can be done when law has not eradicated the problem? Why not focus on the one link that can be our biggest asset? The bride’s parents!
This is a call to parents of every girl child in every country where the dowry system is flourishing. Why should we not say no? It starts with the birth of our daughters. Let us give them a good education, a good upbringing, a happy and safe environment at home and combine all this with a good dose of self confidence and self esteem. Let us say no to any potential groom and his family who talk about marriage like a business transaction. Let us stand strong and firm so our daughters learn from us to say no.
Let us teach them that life throws us many challenges. That we are all supposed to enjoy the journey of life – marriage is never the final destination. It is one part of our journey. Let us give our daughters the confidence to walk out of a marriage where they are being abused and harassed for dowry, knowing that it is not the end of the world. Let there be no more burned brides, hanged brides, poisoned brides or strangulated brides.
Maybe the power has been with us all along. It is time to exercise it. To show the world that every single woman’s life matters. Let us bring forth a change, and let us start at home.
In the past, titles allowed society to distinguish whether women were married or single. Single women had the title of “Miss.” If they were married, the distinction changed to “Mrs.” These terms still hold true today — however, the term “Ms.” is acceptable for both married and unmarried women.
Of course, men weren’t and still aren’t subjected to the same type of naming conventions, and most of the time they use the title “Mr.” — though there is some historical information showing boys under a certain age could be referred to as “Master” until they reached adulthood.
In general, the whole naming convention can be incredibly confusing and unnecessary. After all, why is it important for a doctor to know whether or not a female patient is married or single to treat them? For that matter, why does any company need to know a woman’s marital status to offer them any service at all? And how do these titles apply to lesbian, transgender or non-binary individuals? Do they see and define themselves in the same way these terms want them to define themselves? Does anyone define themselves in the way these terms want them to?
Language is a way for people to communicate with one another, but it can also be a means of control and oppression. Name-calling and hate speech are two particularly vicious examples. It’s also possible that continuing to label women with terms that define marital status is a way to exercise control through language.
We live in an age where women earn money, pay for their own lives and make independent life decisions. Women are no longer extensions of their husbands, but separate and self-sufficient entities. In fact, more men are opting to take their wives’ last names for a variety of reasons, overturning the tradition of wives taking husbands’ last names. The most common practice is still for a woman to take her husband’s last name, but it’s also acceptable for women to keep their maiden names, hyphenate two names or even for couples to decide on a brand-new last name that both change to. The decision rests with the couple.
Since the decision of how a person wants to be addressed is so personal, it seems demanding and oppressive that women should have to choose a prefix from a list of terms they may or may not identify with, especially when society doesn’t hold men to the same standards.
Attempting to change English to be more inclusive and less oppressive isn’t a new proposal, but it is problematic and difficult to accomplish. However, one of the first steps to making a change is to recognize that a problem exists, and to call out those using oppressive language. In time, perhaps society will change how we address women and men, along with minorities, the LBGTQ community and anyone who feels mistreated, stereotyped or unable to define themselves accurately through existing language.
Times have changed, but we are still holding on to an outdated form of defining women’s identity. Granted, some women and men still believe in keeping with tradition and hanging on to these naming conventions, which may be part of the reason they’ve endured so long. But at some point, shouldn’t we all agree to update them?
I have reached an age where my friends are starting to get engaged, some of them even have one or two kids. I have reached an age where other people start expecting certain things from me.
Whenever I open my Facebook or Instagram news feeds, all I can see are pictures of hands with gorgeous diamond rings, and everyone is so thrilled by the news that the comments sections keep refreshing by the minute. As I observe the reactions towards this, I begin wondering why there are so few pictures posted online about promotions at work, or other huge life milestones like buying a first home or graduating from a Master’s Degree?
Why it is that getting married and having kids are still considered to be the epitomes of success for women?
Are they accomplishments? Yes.
Are they the only accomplishment worth celebrating? Definitely not.
Whenever I catch up with old friends or people I haven’t seen for a while, it seems the only relevant question to ask me is when I am tying the knot. Does the same thing happens to my brother or my boyfriend? I am pretty sure it doesn’t, at least not this often.
It seems outrageous to me that given the time we live in, getting married is still more respected than any other professional, academic or entrepreneurial achievement for women. For the record, I am not undermining the idea of marriage – it is a beautiful commitment. I am simply stressing how important it is to celebrate other accomplishments as well.
I can see why this was once considered the milestone in life, since not so long ago this was all women were allowed to aspire to. Let’s be frank, though, this changed many years ago and yet we are still defined above all else as someone’s wife, mother or girlfriend.
I want to be able to share and celebrate my job promotion, my future master’s degree, the launch of my own business, and the amazing trips I plan to make with my friends and loved ones. I want these milestones to be received with the same enthusiasm and acknowledgment as an engagement announcement.
The marriage pressure women are under is still huge, and it has got to stop. Specially in Mexico – an often sexist country – it is still hard to believe a woman can be full or truly happy without a man.
I want to stress how important this is. It is important for all of us who have ever felt there is something wrong with us if we are single, and for all of us who have worried that it’s strange to feel truly happy and blessed without being in a relationship. It’s important for all of us who have been in an abusive relationship but were too scared to walk away due to social stigma, and for all women who feel attracted to other women but cannot say so because society works so hard to make us think that the best answer is always having a man by our side.
It’s okay if you are single, it’s okay if you don’t want to have children, it’s okay to live your life in any way that makes you happy. It’s ok to live life on your own terms. Go and do what you love, there is no such thing as a ticking clock. Let’s work together to change this perception and help society move towards being more equal.
I encourage you to share this thought with the women in your life and discuss it with them.
Renuka Thapa came to Nani Maya Gurung’s office crestfallen. Between her tears, broken sentences filled the room. For weeks she had fought with her parents. They were forcing her to get married, but at 18 years old, she wasn’t ready. She had hopes and dreams of a life in Kathmandu – working, earning an income, living on her own. About to complete grade 12, she wanted to finish school and use her education. They wouldn’t listen. Marriage was the appropriate and most secure next step for their daughter, and they felt it their right and duty to make the decision for her. Why waste time finishing school when they had a stable future lined up for her? Renuka disagreed. Thankfully she went to Nani, and thankfully Nani had observed a Her Turn workshop.
Nani sits with her shoulders slightly rounded, eyes fixated on the Nepali district map behind me. Her long black plait rests on her back and her weathered, tawny hands nervously click a pen on the desk in front of her. She speaks with caution, answering our questions with brevity and somber eyes. I strain for her eye contact, but she only gives fleeting glances to Wongmu, the Her Turn Field Coordinator. A teacher at Shree Devi Secondary School, Nani observed the Her Turn girls’ education and empowerment workshop three months ago. We came to Nani’s village, Petku, to conduct interviews with the workshop’s participants, their parents, and their teachers. We hoped to better understand Her Turn’s impact on the community.
With time, Wongmu softens Nani. In answering our questions, the stolid face begins to show glimmers of a grin. She gushes about the changes in the girls – their increased confidence, ability to communicate and stand up for themselves, willingness to take risks. We relish in the good news. The conversation then turns to heavier parts of the curriculum, the often unspoken realities that individuals in her village face – domestic violence, sexual abuse, human trafficking, and child marriage. As Wongmu broaches child marriage, Nani’s staidness returns. Child marriage plagues the village, she tells us. And the consequences are dire.
In fact, child marriage plagues all of Nepal.
An estimated 41% of girls younger than 18 are married off by their parents. In more than one third of new marriages in Nepal, the girl is younger than 15. Often forced into the marriages because of lower dowries, the illusion of protection from the new husband, or a lessened financial burden, the young brides suffer physically, psychologically, and emotionally.
Once married, girls are forced into sexual activity and become pregnant before their bodies fully mature. Young mothers’ pregnancies often lead to debilitating physical ailments like uterine prolapse – a serious and painful condition in which the tendons and ligaments surrounding the uterus can no longer hold it, and it slides into the vaginal area. These girls experience tremendous pain during sexual intercourse, vaginal bleeding, urinary incontinence, and difficulty performing the day to day manual labor expected of them. Even a task as seemingly simple as lifting a baby can become near impossible, not to mention cooking, cleaning, child care, and agricultural work. Women who suffer uterine prolapse are deemed “impure” by their husbands. They are more likely to suffer from marital rape and domestic abuse.
Obstetric fistula, a condition in which the mother’s pelvis is too small for the baby’s shoulders or head during labor, is also common in child pregnancy. Caesarian sections have all but eliminated obstetric fistula in countries with the medical access. Protracted labor causes fistula, tearing of the vaginal wall. While difficult to track in rural areas, reports show occurrences in 88% of girls’ pregnancies between the ages of 10 and 14. And it comes with the same social stigma as uterine prolapse. Thus girls fear consequences and neglect to seek treatment. The younger a mother, the more likely she is to experience these conditions. The prevalence of obstetric fistula and uterine prolapse are difficult to estimate precisely because of the stigma attached to these conditions.
Early pregnancy is the single leading cause of death in girls 15 to 19 years old in low income countries.
The ramifications of child marriage extend beyond pregnancy related trauma. The younger the girl, the more likely she is to be abused. Marriage often means the end of a girl’s education, limiting her agency and ability to earn income. Human traffickers often marry young girls, promising families a safe and secure future, only to sell them into the sex trade.
Despite its widespread acceptability and prevalence, child marriage is illegal in Nepal.
With parental consent, Nepali law states that a girl must be 18 years old to marry. Without parental consent, she must be 20. Though seldom enforced, these laws may better the lives of Nepali young women.
Armed with this knowledge from the Her Turn workshop, Nani met with Renuka’s parents. She explained that though frequently ignored or unknown, Nepali law prohibits child marriage. They could not force marriage onto their unwilling daughter. The ability to support herself by if imaging her education would give Renuka security and independence. Why quit school now when their daughter was so close to finishing? After days of convincing, they finally conceded. Renuka now lives and works in Kathmandu. She is finishing school and working part time in a corporate office.
The fight against child marriage is not straightforward or easy. The issue is tangled with poverty, dowries, misogyny, fixed gender roles, and lack of education. Nepal needs policy enforcement with heavy consequences on a nationwide scale as well as localized intervention programs. But mostly, communities and individuals need education. With increased awareness of the realities of child marriage, perhaps girls’ school enrollment and retention rates will improve. And through education comes a world of possibilities. Hopefully Renuka’s choice to delay marriage does exactly that.