Child Marriage, Sexual Violence, and the #MeToo Movement

Responding to: Building Coalitions to End Child Marriage

By: Anita Raj

December 4, 2018

One in five women globally married before they were age 18; in nations with low development, two in five women married before age 18, with more than one in five married before age 15. Early and child marriage is a health and human rights issue disproportionately affecting the poorest and most vulnerable girls, and increasing their maternal health risks as well as risks for the children they may bear. A preponderance of scientific evidence from across nations demonstrates that girls who marry as minors predominantly do so in a context of restrictive social norms related to girls’ value and security in adulthood tied to their marital prospects and role as wife and mother.

Social rules supporting these norms often follow, reinforced by religious and cultural practices and beliefs. Two key and interrelated aspects of this are a) linking menarche to adulthood and marital age and b) ensuring sexual honor and protection by having a girl marry before premarital sex or rape can occur. Reasonably, many feminist critiques question religious doctrines limiting women and girls’ value to their sexual and reproductive roles and in relation to husbands and family responsibilities. However, beyond this critique, there also lies a rape mythology perpetuated by these practices and compromising women and girls of every society, regardless of the prevalence of child marriage in the country.

Child and early marriage continues to be maintained in many cultures to help prevent sexual harassment and assault of girls. At menarche, when many view a girl as having achieved sexual maturity, girls are supported to marry; even in nations such as India, which has seen a dramatic decline in the practice, the link between early age at menarche and early age at marriage persists. Parents may seek to limit girls’ and young women’s social mobility, even for school or employment opportunities, as a means of protecting them from sexual harassment and assault; and in fact, data do indicate that women face the greatest burden of sexual harassment and sexual assault in adolescence and young adulthood. However, the data do not suggest that child and early marriage are in any way a protection against such abuses; in fact, those who marry as minors are to be at greater risk for sexual violence from husbands.

Such findings are not so surprising. First, those who marry as minors may not have had choice in their marital partner. Second, they may not yet have interest in sexual activity, with anyone; there is no evidence that menarche is an indicator of sexual readiness, only reproductive readiness. Yet, marital expectations include sexual activity, and too often without an understanding that sexual activity should include sexual enjoyment. Rather, the opposite appears to hold true; sexual assault or rape in marriage remains unrecognized, by law as well as couples in numerous nations around the world. Hence, parents support these girls to enter early marriage as a means to avoid sexual violence, only to increase their risk for sexual violence from husbands, with impunity.

With recognition of these increased vulnerabilities for girls who marry as minors, leaders from government, religion, and women’s and children’s rights groups have banned together to help guide an evidence-based change in normative beliefs and practices related to early and child marriage. We clarify that sexual maturity for a girl is not solely based on menarche, and girls are more vulnerable to violence from their husbands in early marriages. However, these approaches do little to advance the larger underlying issues that maintain female vulnerability to violence in marriage and to risk for sexual harassment and assault more broadly. For these, we must push into the spotlight religious, cultural, and even societal norms related to marriage and sexuality that maintain women and girls’ value only as it relates to the sexual needs of men, and denigrates female sexuality as selfish and disrespectful. These norms maintain a society where women will be at increased risk for sexual harassment and assault regardless of their life choices—more likely to be sexually abused by a husband if marrying early and more likely to be sexually harassed in the workplace if delaying marriage for a career. Simultaneously, they also perpetuate an image of men as abusive and destructive, which runs counter to most women’s experiences of the men they are close to in their lives—their father, husbands, and sons.

Religions do not dictate ideologies demanding early marriage of girls, rape in marriage, and sexual harassment and assault to women and girls in public spaces, but religious texts are used to justify these behaviors. In the absence of taking an active stand against these practices and clarifying values related to the unacceptability of sexual violations and accountability for violators, religions will be viewed as standing in support of the practices. So too will law and society. In this time of #MeToo, and during these 16 Days of Activism Against Violence Against Women, with the theme #HearMeToo, all institutions—including religious ones—must decide what they will do to be a part of this movement, because silence at this moment is an act against it.

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Child Marriage, Sexual Violence, and the #MeToo Movement