While girls in the Western world generally expect to marry at ages older than their great-grandmothers’, in parts of Asia the clock has often stopped. Although in middle-class and higher socioeconomic groups Asian girls are allowed – indeed, urged – to gain at least a high school diploma, where money is tight and traditions are strong, they’re married off young. Too young.
As in 5 years old.
This is not an Appalachian-style boy-meets-girl, shotgun wedding of teenagers who, however misguidedly, have chosen their own partners. The marriage of Asian little girls is arranged by their fathers. It is largely condoned by their extended family and village. Because it is illegal, the proceedings are kept very quiet. Yet so far, few men have been prosecuted for what amounts to trafficking of their own daughters (because marriage requires consent of both parties, children deemed too young to give effective consent cannot “marry” – therefore, giving them to men in exchange for money, gifts, status, or favors is trafficking).
National Geographic is a magazine that tends toward the euphemistic. When NatGeo runs a story on illegal child marriages, you know the editors have finally grown upset over a tradition that’s existed for centuries.
The girls, whatever their age, are not prepared for marriage. They know as little of sexual intercourse as girls in the nineteenth century. They are often married to men hugely bigger in size – “like a rat marrying an elephant”. In sex, there is torturous pain (a man is supposed to wait until the child bride reaches her teens, but many do not), and, too often, vaginal rips that result in a painful death for the little girl. Either she bleeds to death, or bacteria multiply in her bloodstream and she dies of septicemia. Because these countries do not recognize the concept of marital rape, husbands are not charged with that crime, nor with murder. The girls’ lives are simply not worth enough to others. The husband buys himself another bride. His life goes on.
If an adolescent girl survives and is impregnated, she often enters labor with no idea what is happening to her.
The increase in the numbers of Chinese and Indian single men in the next 20 years – due to the prolonged and still permitted gendercide of female fetuses in those countries – makes it imperative that marrying off children be seen as unhealthy and unjust, and stopped now, for the coming millions of men will be able to offer much more money for a bride of any age than rural fathers have yet seen.
How to stop the practice of giving children to men who are often their fathers’ or grandfathers’ ages? The article reports that simply saying no, driving the practice underground, or arresting the guilty fathers – who blackmail their daughters into obedience, telling them that marriage will prevent the father being imprisoned – is not as effective as community programs that call on a host of people to adopt different norms.
From the article: “What seems to work best, when marriage-delaying programs do take hold, is local incentive rather than castigation: direct inducements to keep girls in school, along with schools they can realistically attend. India trains village health workers called sathins, who monitor the well-being of area families; their duties include reminding villagers that child marriage is not only a crime but also a profound harm to their daughters. . . .
“If we separate a girl and isolate her from her community, what will her life be like?” asks Molly Melching, the founder of Tostan, which has won international respect for its promotion of community-led programs that motivate people to abandon child marriage and female genital cutting. Tostan workers encourage communities to make public declarations of the standards for their children, so that no one girl is singled out as different if not married young.
“You don’t want to encourage girls to run away,” Melching says. “The way you change social norms is not by fighting them or humiliating people and saying they’re backward. We’ve seen that an entire community can choose very quickly to change. It’s inspiring.”
Communities can change. If only they will.
Link to National Geographic article: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/06/child-brides/gorney-text