A schoolgirl in Malawi. Photo by: Erik Törner / IM Individuell Människohjälp / CC BY-NC-ND

On the International Day of the Girl Child, we know that one in three girls in developing countries — aside from China — get married before they turn 18.

Surely that is intolerable in today’s world. We think of 13-year-old brides, pushed against their will into relationships with older men, forced out of school — their futures prematurely and permanently limited to subservience and motherhood. Yet, child marriage serves as a poignant example where an arbitrary age limit completely misses the point and is in fact failing young women and girls.

There are doubtless many girls afflicted in this way around the world; we would rightly join with UN Women to abhor and seek to end such practices. We might agree with the many organizations that view this as a human rights violation.

But are we really to believe that any marriage involving parties under the age of 18 violates human rights? That any such marriage is wrong and should be prohibited?

What of a 17-year-old woman who marries her 19-year-old boyfriend. Should we be invoking a discourse of human rights to prevent this?  

While marriage may be practiced universally, it is a very different practice in different places, as my research has shown. Its different elements — economic transaction, relocation, social roles, and power geometries — come together in some contexts in ways that are oppressive, but this is not the case everywhere.

There are societies in which marriage is highly unequal and exploitative, but there are others in which marriage is more equal, less permanent, more favorable to women. If marriage is not universally similar, why should we seek to regulate it in a universal way? This is the question I will address at the upcoming Putting Children First conference in Ethiopia on tackling child poverty in Africa.  

What concerns me is that child-focused campaigning organizations, as well as international institutions such as the World Bank, are progressively classifying everyone aged 0-17 in a single category of “child” and seeking to colonize this broad age category with universal policies and prohibitions. The diversity of young people’s experiences across this very wide age range, and between different societies, is ignored. Child marriage campaigns that draw on a simplified image of a young “child bride” in order to persuade governments worldwide to raise the minimum age for marriage to 18 are just one example. Among the most recent countries to bow to this pressure was Malawi earlier in 2017.

My many interviews with young women about marriage reflect a diversity of experiences. Mapoka, in Lesotho, talked about her marriage as the saddest moment in her life. She had to leave school. She struggled hard to find food for her young family and had to cope without the support of her mother in her new home. Neither her in-laws, nor even her husband offered her any help. This picture corroborates what I learned from other young women in Lesotho, who told of having to move to live with their in-laws, often in a village they’d never visited, and sharing their lives with unemployed husbands, struggling to provide for themselves and their families.

In stark contrast, Limnile in Malawi said that her life had changed for the better since her marriage. She’d married under pressure from her mother but, in her words, “at the beginning, if I knew it would be like this, I would have said Lord thank you.” In Malawi, young men come and live with their wives when they marry. They build a house so that they can live separately from her parents, and the couple work together on the wife’s field, building a livelihood and a life together. Most of Limnile’s contemporaries shared her positive view of marriage.

For young women in Malawi, marriage represented a move from a natal home where the very limited resources were increasingly switched toward younger siblings to a relatively independent cooperative relationship with a young man of a similar age. Many young women said they married because, in a context of deep poverty, they wanted a more supportive relationship. In Malawi, marriage usually takes place after girls have left school, rather than triggering dropout. If things don’t work out, the marriage is dissolved and the husband leaves.

Strikingly, neither of these young women knew exactly how old they were when they married. Mapoka told us she was 17 or 18 — she wasn’t sure. It wasn’t their precise age that shaped their different experiences, but the economic circumstances surrounding their marriages and the social practices entailed. Marriage wasn’t necessarily a problem — but the circumstances in which it took place were.

The focus on the minimum ages and on legislative responses serves to cast blame on individual culprits (men who marry young wives) rather than on the processes of marriage or on the wider situations that make it a sensible response to economic circumstance. When it comes to young people’s well-being, campaigns to raise the minimum age point the finger at the wrong thing.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Nicola Ansell

    Nicola Ansell is a professor at Brunel University in human geography, with a particular focus on children and youth. At Brunel, Nicola has undertaken research projects looking at the impacts of AIDS on young people’s migration; the ways in which education sectors are adjusting to the needs of AIDS-affected young people; and the impacts of AIDS on young people’s current livelihoods and future food security. She is currently working on two projects: one examining the impacts of social cash transfers (for instance old age pensions and child grants) on generational relations in Malawi and Lesotho and the other investigating links between education and aspiration in remote rural areas of Lesotho, Laos and India.