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 growth.

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? No.

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 do?


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.

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