Time and again, at almost every inter-governmental meeting I attend, there are government representatives who will stand up and justify many practices ranging from early marriage, female genital mutilation, marital rape and different practices which are inherently violent, in the name of religion, culture or tradition. From the level of the family and community, all the way to the august rooms at the United Nations, men continue to argue that there are advantages to early marriage, and that there are cultural and religious beliefs that support their right to marry off under-aged girls.
It’s essential we understand the definition of violence – so that we can draw parameters for what we understand as violent acts. The WHO defines violence as “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, mal-development, or deprivation.” Violence can be physical, sexual, verbal and psychological.
Let us look at the issue of early marriage that is girls being married before the age of 18. In our region, very often, this is justified under the pretext, that our great-grandmothers, etc. were all married rather young, and there’s nothing wrong with it. Or that it would be better to marry girls to prevent them from being raped, or from dating and having pre-marital sex. Or in order to safeguard the family’s honour. Is early marriage actually a form of violence against women and girls?
Firstly, early marriage occurs at an age where most often the girl still cannot vote, cannot drive, cannot hold a bank account in her own name. Hence we are talking, for all aims and purposes, about someone who is considered a legal minor in many respects, except that she can be married off. There still continue to be some who think such a girl – disenfranchised from all other amenities of life – married most often to an older man, has some sort of good, romantic life.
Data indicates otherwise: there is a strong correlation between early age of marriage and the occurrence of gender-based violence. A 10 country study showed that age at first marriage is a major factor related to experiences of violence: women who were younger than 20 years old when they first married or started living with their current husband or partner were more likely to report physical or sexual violence than those who reported being 20 years or older when they first married.
First sex, where early and arranged marriage is common, is characterised by forced, early marital sex. Younger girls who marry at an early age often have negligible sexual experience, lesser information, no autonomy and little negotiating power within the relationships. Their partners often are older, and this puts younger women at greater risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. Early marriage is also associated with lower educational attainment for girls, limiting their employment opportunities, economic security and productive value to society.
Of course all of the above is a violation of rights – the bodily rights, the sexual and reproductive rights of girls. How common is this phenomena? Globally, it is estimated 39,000 girls are married too young everyday.
If we want to do something about this, it is important that we take away the lens of culture, religion and tradition, and see the issue for what it is. One, the lower status accorded to women in our societies, often considered the property of men which could be stolen, and dishonoured. Two, the lack of political will of governments to ensure equality of women and girls and accord them the same rights before the law. Three, deep-set in our society and our cultures is an inherent patriarchal bias which perpetuates violence in multifarious, and nefarious ways, which need to be analysed, and uprooted if we are serious about ending gender-based violence. Merely writing up laws and policies, without addressing the root causes, is like putting a band-aid for an intra-cranial bleed.
Addressing root causes will ask all of us to stand up for the rights of girls: to decide who to love, who to marry, who to have sex with and when to do all of these, and how often. And to change their mind if they want to. It’s simple, it’s necessary and yet it seems to be one of the hardest battles in the world – but it is one we have to fight till the end if we want to end gender-based violence.
 Hindin, M.J; Kishor, S; Asara, D. (2008). Intimate Partner Violence among Couples in 10 DHS Countries: Predictors and Health Outcomes. DHS Analytical Studiesv18. Calverton, USA: Macro International.
 Jejeebhoy S.J. (2007). Understanding Sex Without Consent Among Young People: A Neglected Priority.
 World Health Organization (WHO); United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). (2006). Married Adolescents: no Place of Safety.
 Mathur, S.; Greene, M; Malhotra, A. (2003). Too young to wed: the lives, rights, and health of young married girls. Washington D.C., USA: International Center for Research on Women (ICRW).
 Gupta, S.D.; Mukherjee, S.; Singh, S.; Pande, S.; Basu, S. (2009). Knot Ready: Lessons from India on Delaying Marriage for Girls. ICRW. 2009. Washington D.C., USA: International Center for Research on Women (ICRW ).