Ending Child Marriage: the unnecessary paradox between development and culture

Blog Post
March 1, 2012

At the heart of many girl-targeted interventions is the underlying recognition that girls--and poor girls in particular--are the most undervalued population on the planet. This bears itself out in a number of ways, and contributes to the disparity among boys and girls, men and women. Advocates of the girl effect seek to reinforce the inherent value that girls possess. This involves not only an economic shift or a political shift; it also involves a shift in the cultural and social fabric of the family and of the community.

Take India, for example, where there has been a notable effort to address the social and cultural perceptions that surround such issues. According to Knot Ready by ICRW, while India’s child marriage rates have declined, nearly half of all young women are married before the age of 18, and it is most dire in rural areas, where the rate is a staggering 56%. Why is early marriage such a concern? Girls Count, a paper that examines multiple issues that affect girls, states “Young married girls are almost always required to take on the bulk of domestic work in their households; are often subject to sexual abuse, including nonconsensual sex with their husbands; are under extreme pressure to prove their fertility; and are at substantially greater risk of illness and death. In short, married girls have extremely constrained decision making power and fewer life choices.”

In Ending Child Marriage: a Guide for Global Policy Action, the authors explain, “Child marriage … is more common in rural communities. This is because rural households tend to have more entrenched traditional attitudes and customs, are less affected by external influences, and have fewer livelihood options for young women. In general, child marriage is more prevalent among poorer families, although where the practice is virtually universal it may be almost as common among wealthier families.” Of course, this devaluing of girls does not just happen within the confines of the home. It is, in many ways, a cultural issue that is fixed within the social structure. According to Plan’s report, Breaking Vows, “Gender inequalities also contribute to early marriage through their impact on formal legal systems. A number of the countries with the highest rates of early marriage, including Niger and India, also have unequal laws of consent for boys and girls, reinforcing the idea that it is suitable for girls to marry at an earlier age than boys.” India’s marriage law states that girls must be 18, while boys must be 21 to legally marry. In light of these institutional disparities, it becomes clearer why a family with limited resources would struggle to upend these norms. What would the point be in enriching a daughter’s human capital if society does not have a place for her outside of the home? Because there are a number of factors that make child marriage a common practice, how do you address the underlying cultural constraint? And how do you cultivate an appreciation for girls?

Several programs in India are attempting just that. For instance, Apni Beti Apna Dhan, “Our Daughter, Our Wealth,” in the State of Haryana, provides a cash incentive to bear a girl child, and the program deposits money into a savings account for the girl, which she can access at the age of 18, provided that she has remained both in school and unmarried. The program began in 1994 and the oldest girls will be turning 18 this year. Gayle Tzemach Lemmon wrote an interesting piece for the Daily Beast on it in December. The impacts of Apni Beti will soon become apparent, as will the extent to which you can mold cultural and social traditions through cash incentives at the family and community levels.

Development practitioners and policy makers are right to be sensitive to local cultures, and to try to avoid an imperialistic approach to development, which has been criticized as of late. However, there is a significant difference between exporting our policies and priorities on others without considering contextual factors, and what I believe the girl effect represents. Girls want to go to school. They want to have control over their own lives, when to marry, whom to marry, how many children to have and when. The girl effect, despite the criticisms of Koffman and others, seeks to honor the well-being of the girl and reinforce her inherent value in her community. While bringing about these sorts of changes will require a shift in cultural values, I believe it is a necessary shift. It is imperative to respect the cultures and communities in which these girls live, but at the same time, we must prioritize the well-being of the girl when these two ideas conflict.

This is the second in a 3-part series on gender and development. Check back next week for part 3!