Child Marriage: Between Tradition and Human Rights

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Just imagine. Excogitate a bit. Imagine your childhood years. Do you remember those your childhood dreams, hopes, and aspirations? As a young innocent girl, you had the dreams of having a fulfilled life. You aspired to go to school, become well educated, have a wonderful profession; a rewarding job. You strived to build a beautiful, healthy family with someone you loved. You may go on continuing. Suddenly – just unceremoniously – your dream is shattered. Your life aspirations are completely disoriented and forcefully altered in an unimaginable way. Abruptly, your golden blossom life would change from the epitome of hope to void of hopelessness. You are helpless and precarious. A forlorn victim, you would become. That is the sad impromptu end of those hopeful dreams.

Yes, dreams they might be, but in reality, the hopes of many innocent girls are uprooted precipitously by the tradition and other forces across Africa by way of child marriage. Consequently, many innocent girls are not only forced into illegitimate loveless marriage at the ripe age, but these virtuous victims are also equally effectively denied any chance of fulling their childhood dreams. Therefore, the reality is that the said girls are systematically enslaved and cruelly coerced to become a voiceless appendix to their men by way of inglorious child marriage.
Recently, in a move aimed at curtailing child abuse, maternal mortality and the spread of Aids, the Malawi government passed a law banning child marriage. Furthermore, the country raised the minimum marriage age for a woman to 18. In a deeply conservative country with one of the world’s highest rates of child marriage – half of the girls` population becomes child brides at a tender age – this is definitely a new step in the right direction.

In an interview with our Kata Kata`s reporter, many women’s rights groups welcomed the new law, which they believe will not only reduce, “women’s enslavement,“ but will equally become a big tonic for social development. Early marriage does not only hinder girls` education and social opportunities, it possess a great danger to the health of these child brides, who are often victims of rampant maternal mortality and other medical dangers associated with early birth. Furthermore, most of the child brides are exposed to aggressive domestic and sexual exploitation and violence in the hands of their new husbands. In a country where many girls drop out of school or even are not encouraged to go to school altogether because of early marriage, the new law in Malawi cannot be more historic. Most parents in this country and many other African countries, consider it a “waste“ to send their daughters to school because they believe the girl would soon be married off to a man who takes over the responsibility of raising her. Worse still, in most cases, these girls are “owned“ by their new husbands who see them as their properties and therefore treat them accordingly. Whether these girls are happy in their marriages is mostly irrelevant both to their husbands and families. Definitely, the idea of seeking a marriage counselling is totally out of the question in such a traditional setting. It is for that matter a blatant euphemism to say that early marriage in Malawi is not only rooted in the traditional practices; poverty plays a critical role as well in promoting these archaic practices.

But not everyone is happy with the new law.

“This is our tradition, which we inherited from our ancestors. According to our tradition, a girl should marry as early as possible to maximize her fertility. Those who make the law are definitely rich enough to train their daughters. Meanwhile, what of most of us who cannot afford to send our daughters to school?“ One older man who identified himself simply as Silumbu, questioned.

Clearly, it is not an unknown fact that poverty plays a significant part in forcing many poor families in Africa to marry off their daughters at a ripe age. In most cases, these poor families cannot afford the school fees and other academic monitory demands of their daughters. Therefore, an early marriage, meanwhile, offers the poor families, some financial security through dowry payment which effectively helps the families to reduce the burden of feeding more mouths.

Though some might argue that African governments should do more to improve the financial and educational prospects of their citizens, one must not underestimate the role of traditional belief in promoting child marriage. In a society where women are synonymous with a sex object or (re)productive machine, it is, therefore, hardly difficult to understand why many, might believe girls should marry early to enable them to produce as many kids as possible before they reach menopause. Generally, it is a common practice in many African countries that girls – some of them as young as 13 years – marry early. Consequently, these children are initiated into sex to prepare them for their future “˜role” as a woman. In Malawi, for example, as part of the early sexual initiation, a girl may be visited at night by an older man – called “a hyena” – who prepares her to fit into her sex role stereotype by having sex with her. Therefore, it is believed that this “hyena“ pedophilia prepares her for the sexual expectations in her marriage.

“Women are the mothers of the society. Subsequently, without their reproductive ability, life will be at a halt. Therefore, girls should start to bear children as early as possible to maximize her fertility.“ Silumbu argued stubbornly.

Interestingly, justifying child marriage biologically alone undermines other socio-political and economic factors which play an important part in the lives of the affected girls. Suffice to say that giving birth is important for the continuity of life, it becomes another issue entirely if the decision to have a baby is aggressively decided upon and undemocratically forced on individuals by the society. Furthermore, isn’t important that one is mentally, economically and socially fit and ready for the task of not only giving birth but also to take care of the baby? Therefore, logically speaking, the traditional belief that a woman should be married off early enough to maximize her fertility does hold no atom of rationality. Rather, it clearly reinforces the socially held prejudicial belief about women: women are deemed less worthy than men. A sad and unfortunate watery belief, nevertheless.

In our present modern world, where many African countries have gone through the democratic metamorphosis, it is, therefore, a conspicuous anathema to myopically see a woman as anything less equal to a man. Having in mind that many girls sadly drop out of school to fulfill their forced, ugly marriage obligations and the fact that many innocent lives of helpless girls are lost yearly during early pregnancy and birth, therefore, the ban on early marriage in Africa should be seen more as a democratic right of girls than anything else. We all are parts of the tradition. We make the tradition, which can be modified to suit our social realities.

Early marriage ban is more a social obligation. It is, therefore, a necessary women’s empowerment, which is absolutely crucial in the social development and the upliftment of women from the social abyss and hopeless chasm of human right disenfranchisement.