Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, where she leads the center's work on religion and global development, and a professor of the practice of development, conflict, and religion in the Walsh School of Foreign Service. She helped to create and now serves as the executive director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue. She is also vice president of the G20 Interfaith Association. Marshall, who worked at the World Bank from 1971 to 2006, has nearly five decades of experience on a wide range of development issues in Africa, Latin America, East Asia, and the Middle East, particularly those facing the world’s poorest countries. She led the World Bank’s faith and ethics initiative between 2000 and 2006.
It’s complicated, but religious leaders and, more broadly, religious communities could and should be pivotal figures in the global effort to end child marriage. The issues involved are profoundly ethical (at their core they are about human dignity and equality). Norms around marriage are central to the well-being of families and, notwithstanding variations about how families are seen in different cultures and changes buffeting “traditional families” in this modern era, the basics are as valid as ever. Families are societies’ essential building blocks, critical for every ideal from finding meaning in life, preparing young people for citizenship, and happiness. The complication (apart from the wide range of direct religious involvement in marriage practices) is that many deeply ingrained traditions and ideas about marriage need to be rethought and revamped. But the evidence favoring change is compelling, and religious actors have a special, perhaps even unique potential to advance this particular agenda.
Both early and unchosen (forced) marriage were (and remain) common in traditional societies. Today, however, ending both is an important global goal. Marriage of children who are under 18 years old (the international norm for adulthood) is a violation of human rights as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 16) and later international conventions. Likewise, the idea that marriage can be undertaken without full consent violates similar norms. There are abundant reasons for this shift in understandings about marriage, but prominent among them are an appreciation that full consent to marriage is a universal right, the remarkable benefits of educating girls (so that they stay in school rather than entering marriage as a child), and the dangers to a woman’s health of early childbearing. Forced marriage today is considered to be a form of modern slavery and early marriage a clear violation of the rights of the child, especially girls.
Despite the compelling arguments and official international consensus on the evils of child marriage, marriage of children is still common in many societies, following inherited cultural norms and traditions but also driven by economic rationales. In situations of conflict or deep poverty (in camps for refugees and internally displaced people, for example), girls especially are married at very young ages as a form of protection against violence. Even where laws prohibit marriage of children or without full consent, the practice continues. Child marriage occurs in all societies but it is most common across different African countries (4 in 10 young women there have been married before age 18) and in South Asia (3 in 10). Worldwide, 21 percent of young women were married before the age of 18, as well as 4 percent of young men.
Religious beliefs and traditions are an important factor in child marriage. Religious leaders and communities commonly play central roles in betrothal and marriage rituals. Understandings of religious obligations guide many families as they consider marriage of their children. Concepts of family honor are tragically bound up in attitudes towards race, caste, and religion. Because of these links and because religious leaders are often trusted above other groups of leaders, religious actors have influence that can change norms and practices.
Religious and cultural attitudes towards marriage are deeply intertwined with attitudes towards gender roles, particularly those of women. The focus of different religious traditions on the family comes with expectations of subordination of women within the family. That means that a girl’s wishes and views on her marriage are often ignored. Attitudes that assume women’s lesser capacities bolster approaches that consider girls as either a burden (to be shed as soon as possible) or an asset (to protect from dishonor or to capitalize through a bride price). These attitudes have far more to do with culture than religious beliefs and teachings, but there are elements within most religious traditions that assume different and often inferior roles for women. The challenge is to translate understandings of the true equality of all God’s children into practice where women, especially, are concerned.
Religious institutions and leaders should see ending child marriage and assuring that marriages are entered into freely as a priority goal. More important they should see the goal as one where they have direct, often leading responsibility. Action can take many forms, from global advocacy to loving counsel of families. But as a start all should refuse to bless or officiate any marriage of children.