As an American, I operate from a distinct position of privilege compared to the majority of girls across the globe. While I grew up in a culture that grappled with race, sexual orientation and gender relations, I also had access to a plethora of opportunities to receive a dynamic education and strengthen my capacity as a human being. Admittedly, not every American has experienced the same level of privilege. But one thing is clear, it is rare that you find American girls being married off at alarming rates to ensure their survival.
When I read National Geographic’s special report on child brides, my face became contorted as I sucked my teeth and sighed through the experiences of these young girls. Descendants of various ethnicities and cultures, the featured girls told horror stories; from a ten-year-old leaving her 30-something-year-old husband to apply for a divorce in Yemen, to the tragedy of a fourteen-year-old bride already bearing two of her husband’s children—she’s still bleeding and ill from childbirth.
While this certainly wasn’t my first time hearing about child brides, it was a reminder and chance to throw the topic out to my peers for commentary. Admitting my American privilege and mindset, I posted the link up on Facebook and brought up the issue with a few of my close friends. The responses varied from “this happens all the time” to a simple “oh my God,” but one retort stuck out in particular.
She stated, “I can’t help but notice that no one seems to think it is a scandal in quite the same way when kids in the USA are running around at the same age, sleeping with their boyfriends and frequently coming up pregnant by the time they are 16. There is a lot of the “exotic” in this (National Geographic) story … it is always good to ‘translate’ things back into your own culture before making serious value judgments. It’s like when people say things like ‘in East Bingo-Bongo people live on $1 a day’ and everyone gasps … but rarely do they ‘translate’ what that really means in terms of actual (money) and spending power.”
Before passing judgment, it is imperative that we acknowledge the complexity of child marriages and the destitution catalyst behind it. For one, child marriages primarily occur in impoverished nations, as a result of limited educational and advancement opportunities for young girls, along with hunger being a daily issue for most families. In terms implementation, child marriages vary. Some young girls are married off to their male peers, but don’t actually assume their role as “wife” and move in with their husbands until a later date. Other girls are married off to men old enough to be their fathers and immediately are forced to leave their families to serve as wives.
The child brides of the second scenario receive the most media attention and elicit Western disdain. In these situations, the parents of the child generally request that the marriage be consummated at a later date, asking that sex be put off until the girl finishes puberty and/or reaches the age of eighteen, regardless of the joint living circumstance. Despite this request, many older husbands force their young wives to have sex since she has limited protection living in their homes. Of course, there are no legal or community repercussions because of gender inequity and blind eyes. And these young girls are left to suffer, endure rape and bear children.
In particular, I weep for these child brides because unlike the “cultural translation” suggested by the above commenter, the majority of American teenagers engaging in sex have a huge privilege called consent. Rarely do you hear stories of American parents marrying off their young daughters to ensure survival because obviously, it’s illegal and actually punishable by the American judicial system. However, there are American girls that experience child trafficking and endure being pimped for survival by their parents. Perhaps, this could be labeled as a “cultural translation,” but with limitations.
While both of these situations are horrific, it’s important to acknowledge the privileges that remain. After childbirth, if an American teenager continues to bleed or becomes ill, insurance or not, she still has access to a hospital or medical facility. She still has rights to (some form of) an education. And while she may be scarred for life by an underage sexual assault or rape by an older man, she has a far greater opportunity for redemption.
A close friend read the same article, sighing at the same parts while periodically shaking her head. But instead of throwing a response of disdain, she posed a question, “If you were the parent of a young daughter in a place where poverty reigns, educational opportunities are non-existent, and hunger is an everyday experience, would you not give your daughter away to a man that can provide for her and ensure that she doesn’t go hungry? Hunger often trumps morality. Instead of spending our time passing judgment, we should focus on solutions in these countries for young girls to have equal access to education, fed bellies, and opportunities beyond being someone’s wife.”
Yes, I get nauseous when thinking about 10-year-old girls having to marry and endure being raped by 30-year-old men just to eat. But frankly, it’s a reality. Without equal access to education and jobs for young girls, there’s limited hope for change and the decrease of child bride scenarios.
How can we prevent child marriages, economically empower families, and provide educational opportunities for young girls? Speak on it.