My attention to the topic of child marriages was recently reignited by a Guardian report of an 8 year old Saudi girl unable to divorce her 58 year old husband. I’m not only time and again shocked and sickened by the lack of political and social freedoms for women in islamic countries, but also keep wondering when and how their rights could change. One of the most disturbing customs still present across many third world countries is child marriage. In Afghanistan between 60 and 80 percent of marriages are forced according to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commision (AIHRC). Despite an offical ban of marriage of girls below 16 and boys below 18 from 2007, according to UNICEF, 57 percent of marriages in Afghanistan involve girls below the legal age. If you would like to readare more individual stories and see images, check out a slideshow about the situation of women in Afghanistan on Frontline PBS by Stephanie Sinclair. According to the Frontline report, domestic violence is common in Afghanistan and often leads to women and girls setting themselves on fire.
Another recent case from the Middle East is that of Nojoud Muhhamed Nasser, an 8 year old girl from Yemen, who went to court by herself to divorce her 30 year old husband who raped her for about two months following the wedding. Accoring to the islamic law, marriages are not to be consummated until the brides reach puberty, but how often the rule is violated is impossible to know. Muslim men who engage in child marriages and the islamic law that allows such incidents are in priciple to follow the example of Muhammad: after his first wife died, Muhammad married his best friend’s daughter, Aisha. She was six at that time, so he waited to consummate the marriage until she was about nine. Before then, he would ‘thigh’ her, meaning ejaculate between her things. Now, is this a case of a ‘p’ for prophet or a ‘p’ for pedophile?
Unfortunately, Middle East is not the only region infected with child marriage customs. They are not uncommon in South Asia, South America and Africa. According to UNICEF, child brides are most common in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. In Niger, 77% of women between the ages of 20 and 24 were married before reaching adulthood. In parts of Ethiopia and Nigeria, over 50% of girls are married before the age of 15 and some girls are married as young as the age of 7. The custom is essentially a form of establishing political or financial ties in a community where the bride is typically of a lower status than the groom. Most commonly though, young girls are simply married off to not be a financial burden to their families who then also get sums of money in return for their daughters. Young brides are mostly pulled out of education and interaction with peers and are often exposed to premature pregnancies, STDs and domestic violence.
So what can be done to change the fate of young girls in these countries? What I cannot comprehend is how mothers allow this to happen. I can understand that protecting their children can put them at risk, but how can they allow such nightmarish futures loom upon their children? How do they allow their daughters to be taken away and raise their sons to follow such sick customs? NGOs try to educate young women around the world, but unfortunately the victims of such customs are usually the hardest to reach. How much time does a culture need to ripen to an awareness of human rights? Can political change influence the culture behind the custom? Providing a secure legal infrastructure would certainly enhance the chances of change for the better, but that would require a change of heart in those who rule the country, almost none of whom are women.