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.

The question of an “advanced” human rights perspective and Western “imposition”

Yuen Po Street Bird Garden

Yuen Po Street Bird Garden - Hundreds of birds for sale here, kept in extremely tiny cages - cruelty or just business?

[About the picture: The Yuen Po Street Bird Garden is a park in Hong Kong where people bring their caged birds to put on display. In addition, there are hundreds (perhaps thousands) of birds for sale. This particular bird was a popular one. Their discomfort at the tight confines of the cage was pretty obvious as they would all be rapidly moving from one side of the cage to the other in an effort to fly. They look black out of direct light, but in the sun they are a gorgeous dark, cobalt blue.]

An excerpt from an email I recently wrote in response to whether white societies are more advanced when it comes to human rights and expounding on the debate concerning whether the concept of human rights is a Western imposition:

I contest that white societies are more advanced from a human rights perspective – studying their colonial conquests illustrates that white societies are far from advanced from a human rights perspective. I think we’ve done a great job of breaking down indigenous systems of justice and erasing history to make it look like we’re some great hope that came to the rescue on a civilizing mission. I also think that we’re extremely good at using the media to gloss over the countless human rights violations that occur across the world due to our foreign policy.

At the same time, I won’t dispute that we have a well established law system and subsequently white people are well treated in our countries. We take care of our own – the problem is, we don’t give a shit about anyone else, nor do we want to see beyond the mythology of America as great savior.

As for a Western imposition of human rights, this is the other side of the debate when maintaining that there is a widely applicable set of human rights for all people. And while I generally think the idea of human rights as a “western imposition” is a bunch of bull, there are serious issues to consider.

For instance, the idea of banning child labor is a relatively new development and began in the West. At the same time, the West has the luxury to send its children to school – Western activists who have tried to ban child labor in other countries often overlook the root problems and have been accused of imposing Western values.

Is it worse for children to work or is it worse for a family to starve because it is illegal to send their children to work? In the end, a movement can do more harm than good because there is a lack of awareness about local problems. It is not so much about banning children from working (the “Western view”, according to critics) so much as it is about creating opportunities such as schooling for children and jobs for adults so children don’t have to work out of economic necessity. So while I generally disagree with the overall statement that standardizing human rights is a western imposition, there are shades of gray and ways that efforts to apply a standard of human rights can do more harm that good.