Monday, July 10, 2006
Yesterday's New York Times featured this series of photographs on child brides in Afghanistan, an practice that is prevalent across the developing world (although is not always given the attention it deserves as a significant problem because it does impinge on the rights of young women, as opposed to other groups whose voices are often heard louder). However, this particular topic is one that, for me, exemplifies how truly complex and layered these sorts of dilemmas on rights are in the developing world.
When in grad school, I watched a really startling documentary about child brides in rural Ethiopia. Girls as young as 8 years old are married off to men old enough to be their grandfathers, sometimes as a second or third wife. Culture and religion take the lion's share of the blame - families are encouraged to marry their girls off early in order to protect their virginity. The older a girl is, the more likely she is to have had sex, and thus decreased her "value" to a husband. It's actually very difficult for me to write these words because I find them so repugnant (on this issue, you will find me on the anti-cultural relativist stance). The documentary we watched showed male priests decrying Western influence on the subject and encouraging his parishioners to continue the practice. I feel it's pretty clear how women, girls, and their rights are conceptualized in these situations (they have none).
However, this is not a simple debate on cultural relativism, because other issues that plague the developing world - most importantly poverty, and lack of education - have a great deal to do with it as well. Families are more often than not left without the means to feed all their children and sometimes marrying a daughter off young may be the only way to keep her alive. This issue is too a gendered one - daughters are not valued the same way sons are and can fall at the bottom of the pecking order - but it is sometimes basic necessity that causes a family to sell it's daughter to the highest bidder. Education too, or the lack of it, comes into play. There are so many statistics linking women's education to better quality of life; yet here not only are women forced to finish their education when married, but frankly, there are not enough resources for them all (nor all children, male or female) to make it to school.
The documentary I watched added a further layer to the debate. Ethiopia is plagued with a high occurrence of obstetric fistulas in women, which cause them to leak bodily fluids; women become unable to control their urine or faeces and are vulnerable to infections. This condition is often caused by early pregnancy or labor; something most child brides are no stranger to (some of these girls are pregnant by 11 or 12, if their biology allows). Women with fistulas are ostracized from their families and communities, often forced to live alone. Sometimes their child is taken away from them as well. Imagine the life cycle - married at 8, had a child at 11, and sent away to live on your own at 12. Used and discarded - this is the life that many women face.
Fistulas are cured by surgery - a surgery that some estimate costs only $300. Once solved, the woman can go back to leading a normal life. Moving beyond the fact that it would take families making under $1 a day over a year to earn that kind of money, most women can't even get to the hospital in the first place; so many of these families in rural areas where as the hospitals that can deal with fistulas are in the capital. There are not always sufficient roads, or even if there are, means of transportation besides walking.
I provide this example to show how issues, even ones that may seem deceptively small, in the developing world are complex, compounded, and incredibly difficult (I hope not impossible) to solve. For more information on how to help child brides, go to UNICEF's website.