The 1948 Declaration of Human Rights states that all people have the right to choose and have full consent in relation to marriage. Various other international covenants and instruments state the same. The imposition of child marriage, is described as a harmful traditional practice, and is considered a human rights violation. There are grave consequences which mostly affect girls: lack of consent creates a context for sexual abuse and a lifetime of sexual and domestic subservience. No access to education limits choices, denies the possibility of reaching one’s full potential and can perpetuate poverty. There are also serious consequences and risks surrounding girlhood maternal health and mental health.
Childhood marriage and early marriage is practiced in sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, Asia, the Middle East and some South American countries. UNICEF’s analysis of the phenomena considers childhood or early marriage as “a family-building strategy, an economic arrangement or a way to protect girls from unwanted sexual advances”. The practice is usually solely defined in limited sociological or anthropological terms: a solution in response to a perceived social problem; a way to preserve wealth or property within a family; a way to reinforce community ties; or a strategy for economic survival. It is even seen by some as a way to protect young people from the transmission of HIV.
I was recently working in south Darfur and the issue of early marriage was often the topic of discussion on visits to IDP camps (internally displaced people) among Sudanese colleagues. Apparently in Sudan 42 per cent of females under the age of 20 are married. Sudanese and international welfare workers have adopted the UNICEF mantra of eradicating the harmful practice of childhood and early marriage without, in my view, broad discussion or understanding of the phenomena. Acceptance of a UN policy position is easily attained once the possibility of funding dollars is added to the equation but this does not equate to changing long held cultural and socially sanctioned practices.
Discussion and argument about why the practice is considered harmful are relatively easy to have. Everyone wants their children to have access to education, good health and livelihoods. The real discussion that needs to occur is a bit more difficult. The practice of childhood and early marriage is not solely or primarily a response to socio-economic factors. These are secondary. I believe that the practice, like many of our own, is driven by the strong sexual drive of adolescents. Or rather, I should say, attempts by adults to contain it.
Adolescent sexuality is perhaps the most potent drive a human can experience, yet teenagers are the least prepared for it. Every culture and society struggles to contain and direct this powerful adolescent urge. Each society attempts to control adolescent sexuality with the tools, experience and resources they have available.
Some African countries deal with it by enforcing early marriage or marriage as soon as a girl begins to menstruate. It is customary for the Hamish to betroth their teenagers. “Shot-gun weddings” are not an unusual response to adolescent sexual activity - wasn’t the child of a recent United States vice-presidential candidate going to have one of those? Muslim societies enforce strict gender segregation. Prizing virginity is, or has been, an effective strategy in many countries, as has the fear of pregnancy. Demonising “bad girls”, moral condemnation and fear of jeopardising the after life of the soul have been, and continue to be, quite effective ways to curtail the sexual impulses of adolescent girls in many places. The most radical strategy is to physically restrict entry to the vagina and deprive girls of sexual pleasure via female genital mutilation and clitorotomy.
When these strategies fail we attempt to prevent or ameliorate the effects of unsanctioned sexual activity. Interfamilial adoption is customary in many places, including in Australia. Legal adoption and access to abortion are also part of our repertoire, as is the sole parent benefit. Parts of the United States, United Kingdom and Europe have introduced educational programs that cater for teenage mums. Where moral outrage and condemnation is insufficient, some places resort to criminal charges and stoning the young person to death.
Wealth, education and civil society with its many voices have enabled us to move beyond the enforced marriage of children and adolescents, and stoning and female genital mutilation. We can ameliorate the most harmful consequences of adolescent sexual activity for nearly all young people.
Yet as we minimise the risks and allay our fears we must realise that there are other perils. Modern western societies live somewhere between the tension of wanting to make adolescent sexual activity safe and not wanting it to happen at all. We understand the potency of the teenage sexual urge and we see the all the attendant dangers. We acknowledge that we cannot prevent teenage sexual activity by taking a harm minimisation approach. Yet at the same time we seem to be encouraging it through media and popular culture.
Media and popular culture exploit the adolescent sexual drive with ease and sophistication. It, or rather the adults who own and direct these institutions, have taken an important developmental milestone and turned it into a public obsession. It is easy to identify and critique the most obvious effects of constant sexualisation of girls in advertising, music and almost any other aspect of popular and youth culture. But what about the effect on teenage boys?
Part of being a teenager is about taking risks. Masculinity seems to be defined by this: being physically strong, in control, decisive, the pursuer and director of sexual exploits. Combine a potent sexual urge with a sexualised permissive youth culture and you are in heaven if you are a teenage male. There is a flipside however.
There are huge risks attached to a powerful sexual urge which is conferred upon those who are almost completely emotionally and psychologically ill-equipped for it. It seems to me that teenage boys receive the least guidance and attention in relation to this.
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