Universal Human Rights: Child Marriage

"Citizen of the World" - 9/11 Memorial Wall

Criticism means accountability, it means that you take the other person seriously… For me, marriage at the age of 9 for women is not my culture… I feel if that is my culture, then segregation is the culture of this country [US]. – Azar Nafisi on Aloud, at the Los Angeles Library

Working my way through a stack of law journal articles on child marriage, I put them down in disgust, feeling somewhat disillusioned as it became obvious that the sole “best practice” seems to be tax incentives. Now, don’t get me wrong – one of my primary interests is the impact of economics on human rights and poverty and this certainly falls under that category. In addition, child marriage has as much to do with poverty as gender inequality and it is important to address that factor to insure long term change. At the same time, I can’t help but feel that this is a dismal, unsustainable solution that fails to offer a holistic approach to the problem. Of course, to look at the issue in depth reveals a many headed hydra as one’s head spins at being utterly overwhelmed.

While getting my cultural anthropology degree in undergrad I flirted with the idea of cultural relativity. During my time in the discipline, I definitely “tried it on” and did my best to think from this perspective. In retrospect this is something I could never truly subscribe to. Cultural relativity is important to a point. This is a debate that is often hashed and rehashed in graduate classes – and one that I love to tackle regardless of how many times it has come up. Where is the line between imposing one’s values and that of a universal set of rights? Where is the line in which one steps back for the sake of “culture” or where one says “No, this is wrong.”? A long held frustration for me is that the cultural relativity argument is often used to shrug one’s shoulders at issues that impact women. Rather than calling out and denouncing abusive practices, they are written off as “culture.” This is certainly one of the places where I draw the line on cultural relativity.

I was dismayed by a heated debate in which people were criticizing the project to decrease the practice of child marriage as an imposition of culture. It’s extremely important to continuously question one’s practice, and the project merits criticism given it is designed in a top down fashion. At the same time, this is a practice that more often than not has horrific consequences for the girls that are married. While I can see the need to significantly retool the approach, I can’t simply step back on the grounds of cultural imposition. Human rights are universal. Women’s rights are universal.