Wanted: the right to refuse
When marriage is slavery rather than just a happy
family affair, the silence can be deafening.
by Maggie Black
New Internationalist magazine, August 2001
Take a look at Article One of the Supplementary Convention
on Slavery and you will see as one definition: 'Any practice whereby
a woman, without the right to refuse, is given in marriage in
payment of a consideration in money or in kind ...'
Then, tell me please, why has almost no-one noticed forced
marriage as a major issue of human rights? Rape within marriage,
domestic violence, yes. But about forced entry into a life-sentence
of a marriage, the barest whisper of concern. Yet those are the
wives most vulnerable to rape and violence.
Marriage without consent is illegal in many countries. Yet
millions of girls and women still undergo this form of slavery
today. Early marriage is especially common in South Asia and West
Africa, where the idea that the girl (or boy) should have any
say in this family business deal is laughable. In Northern Nigeria,
half the women are married at age 15.
Yet in the recent past not one women's or child-rights campaigner
has made a loud noise about this.
Not one. Amartya Sen, the renowned economist, notices'60 million
women missing' because of girl neglect, but he doesn't mention
the practice. In India, the legal minimum age of marriage is 18
for girls. In the state of Madhya Pradesh 16 per cent of girls
are married by age 14. Are legal cases of wrongful or forced marriage
ever brought? Almost never.
At the beginning of the 21st century being a child wife, even
if it's illegal, puts you in a limbo. You are invisible as either
child or woman, because you have been married. What a man does
to you once, if you are underage and single, is statutory rape.
What he does to you night after night, if you are underage and
married, is fine. In rural Ethiopia, no-one goes to help a girl
of 10 when they hear her screaming out at night It's something
she must learn to bear. After all, she is a wife.
How about a story? Just one, about Hauwa Abukar, a Nigerian
girl who died aged 12. Her family had married her to an older
man to whom they owed money. She was unhappy and kept running
away, but because of the debt her parents were obliged to return
her. Finally, her husband chopped off her legs with an axe to
prevent her absconding again. She died from starvation, shock
and loss of blood. No legal action was taken.
The story may not be typical. But hundreds of thousands of
girls are in situations almost as dire. And even if they are not,
their marriages are still technically slavery because they were
married without consent in some form of exchange. In Somalia or
Northern Uganda, payment by a warlord for a 12-year-old concubine
may consist of assurances about family security. Among stressed
populations - the extremely poor, the conflict-ridden, communities
where HIV is rife - early forced unions seem to be increasing.
' The practice is not confined to o Asia and Africa. In 1998 a
court in Maryland in the US gave permission for a 29-year-old
man to marry his 13 year-old girlfriend because she was pregnant.
So it's pregnancy that is dreadful. Not sex with a minor, not
loss of freedom, not loss of education and of the chance to become
an independent person able to say 'no'. Marriage is fine whatever
it does to the girl or woman. Early pregnancy is not, either because
it is outside wedlock and immoral, or because it's dangerous to
the girl and her baby, or because - horrors! - it adds to population
In the 1960s and 1970s, demographers pointed out that early
marriage was a bad idea because it meant a woman started bearing
children early. If her firstborn arrived when she was 16, she
would have more children over time than if she had waited until
20 or 24. So marriage postponement was a useful contraceptive.
In the 1980s and 1990s, reproductive-health experts pointed
out that early pregnancy was a bad idea because a girl's body
is not ready. Early pregnancy is closely connected to high rates
of maternal and infant death. So marriage postponement is good
for public health.
Did anyone mention slavery or forced sex or wife purchase?
Why the silence around forced marriage? One explanation may
be that the women's movement has focused its attention outside
the domestic domain. And the children's movement was, for long,
not concerned with gender at all. There is a difficulty about
age anyway. The Supplementary Convention on Slavery says everyone
under 18 is a child. But puberty comes much earlier than this.
Many societies marry off their daughters soon after puberty as
a means of 'girl protection' against predatory males. The assumption
is that she never could or should learn to say 'no' to a man.
She should be placed where the idea is superfluous.
So it's the 'traditional' idea of womanhood, sanctioned by
customary laws, which is to blame. Societies have their customary
ways of doing things and we shouldn't interfere. But, tradition
should not be used to justify severe oppression of women - or
of anyone else.
Recently the British Home Office issued a groundbreaking report
on the forced marriages of British girls of Asian origin. The
Minister stated: 'Multicultural sensitivity is not an excuse for
moral blindness. 'When a UNICEF Report on Early Marriage was launched
in March, the Indian Women's Policy Officer in New Delhi was asked
by the BB(, whether it wasn't a cultural intrusion for an international
body to decry such a practice. She responded in amazement. 'The
practice is illegal here, what on earth do you mean?'
Like other dreadful things that human beings do to one another
in the name of 'custom' and 'tradition', forced marriage is a
practice which should cease. Everyone supposes that education
will in time be the great panacea because marriage age definitely
rises with school attendance. But is this really the best we can
Maggie Black is author of the UNICEF Report Early Marriage:
Child Spouses (IRC Florence, 2001 ) and a founding member of the
UK Forum on Marriage and the Rights of Women and Girls, which
can be contacted through Save the Children Fund.
Secrets and Lies