By Guest Contributor Sana Saeed, cross-posted from Muslimah Media Watch
The burdens of poverty affect most, if not all aspects, of social relations. Most prominently (and unsurprisingly), women carry the greatest burden of the social predicaments that arise from a dire lack of economic security. Women in groups hit hardest by financial strain easily become seen as sources of further strain on their families. Education is often either inaccessible or seen as an unnecessary part of a young girl’s growth and life.
This is not always necessarily the case, as there is much evidence that shows support of girl-child education by, specifically, mothers who realize the role education can play in providing a better life for their children. Yet, despite this, in many instances across the world (primarily in developing countries, but not limited to them), young girls are forced to accept the strain upon their families that they are perceived to pose. This position can lead many young girls, either by coercion by family or by “choice,” onto the road towards prostitution, sex slavery, or even suicide. Yet perhaps the most common result is marriage.
An article published earlier this month on EurasiaNet explores the impact of poverty on “early marriage” in Tajikistan. The article cites a recent study by the Eurasia Foundation that looks at the issue of “informal justice” in Tajikistan. While looking at a variety of issues, the article dedicates a good amount to gender relations, specifically the issue of non-state-administered justice for women in unregistered marriages, which come in a variety of flavors, one of which is early marriage. Marriage before the age of 18 is illegal under Tajik law and subject to harsh punishment.
However, it is commonly practiced and encouraged by many religious clerics who not only feel it is sanctioned within Islam but also believe it to be a solution to the problems of poverty faced by women in a country ravaged by years of war. In its discussion of underage marriage, the report explores the relationship between the privilege (and burden) of education on poor families and marriage before the legal age of 17 for Tajik girls. According to the report (emphasis mine):
Early marriage is partially a result of poverty and, given the weak state of the economy and gender discrimination in hiring practices, there is little incentive to support daughters wishing to pursue higher education before marriage. As a result, a worrying trend associated with underage marriage is young women not completing their education. Tajik girls’ access to education is impacted at the secondary level, and there are significant gender disparities at the high school and university levels.
In rural areas of Tajikistan, it is common for girls to leave school at grade nine due to inadequate educational facilities and economic constraints. Families have to contribute money for their children’s education, including buying uniforms and renting textbooks…Due to limited resources, families make conscious decisions to educate boys over girls, as girls’ education is not seen as a pragmatic investment.
According to a UN Report from 2004, an “estimated…12 percent of [Tajik] girls between 15 and 19 years of age were married, divorced or widowed.” Given that the burden young girls may place on a poor family is characterized in economic terms, it is natural that the resulting solution to the problem would also be economic in character. Most, if not all, young girls, who are forced (or, in some instances, “choose”) to marry at a young age, marry men far older than them.
While there is certainly the aspect of the attraction an older male may have towards a young, virginal woman, the economic security that he provides for both her and her family in this context cannot be understated. Given the nature of employment, maturity, gender relations, and poverty in many underdeveloped countries, men are considered mature at an age that comes far later than for women.
At the heart of this maturity is financial stability. Unfortunately, this stability often comes at the expense of a young girl’s rights, sexual agency, body, reproductive and sexual health, and choice. These young girls also often do not only face domestic violence in their unequally leveraged relationships but also can once again return to a point of economic and social uncertainty if their spouse dies, bringing an added burden of being a widow.
The EurasiaNet piece (and the report it cites) on early marriage in Tajikistan, as well as other similar pieces on underage marriage elsewhere in the world, points to an important issue. Equally important is the ability to see the practice of early marriage as motivated by more than just religion or culture. But early marriage is not the only consequence of strained economic times. What is missing from this discussion is that marriage has often been traditionally as much an economic contract between two individuals and two families as a religious contract or a bond of love within legal parameters for reproduction and social harmony.
Thus, poverty cannot only lead to young girls being married off to much older men but also women, over the marriageable legal age of a particular country, marrying far older men, entering polygamous relationships (which the Eurasia Foundation report notes) or even temporary marriages. Marriage, for many women facing financial burdens or uncertainty, becomes seen as a refuge from the harms that follow being a single woman without an education in a social sphere where no other economic safety net exists (or is enough to meet increasingly costly demands of life). And this is certainly not exclusive to poverty- and/or conflict-stricken countries. Furthermore, there needs to be a clear differentiation between early marriage and ‘child’ marriage, the latter in which the framing of “child” needs to be clearly defined. Surely there must be a difference in betrothing an 8-year-old and betrothing a 16-year-old?
My concerns, however, aside–such pieces point to the unfortunate circumstances in which many early marriages emerge and highlight the abuses and injustices faced by these young women.