The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) focuses on legal prohibitions (which are ubiquitous but poorly enforced), “health information” and “reproductive health services.” Yet the nonprofit BRAC found that 60 to 70 percent of young women in remote Bangladesh were already using some method of contraception – and, of course, contraceptives do nothing to prevent marriage.
The Guardian UK rather imaginatively attributed child marriage rates to climate change. Although the author admitted that “none of the villages” surveyed “had any way of recording the changes scientifically, or indeed felt any urge to do so.”
In some instances, the government has recognized the economic underpinnings and simply pays girls to remain single. The northern Indian state of Haryana offers bonds to newborn girls redeemable on their 18th birthday, provided they are unmarried. These government programs have the unintended consequence of entrenching the system they are meant to eradicate. “Cash transfers tend to perpetuate dowry,” UNICEF noted, “since parents use the grant for that purpose as soon as the girl turns 18 years old.” The dowry system proves irresistible to desperately poor families who cannot, or will not, risk their economic future on the remote prospect of a government payout.
The region’s nonprofit sector has realized that government transfer payments do not mitigate the problem as well as the free market. BRAC has launched 360 clubs that teach rural girls aged 11 to 21 financial literacy, entrepreneurship, vocational skills and the use of savings and credit. “The program aims to provide [the participant] with training on such enterprise so that her contribution to her household becomes valuable, thereby contributing to increasing her agency, ” the group states. The results have proven impressive in Uganda, where girls who stay in the club for two years are 58 percent less likely to marry before adulthood.
In India, the nonprofit Landesa teaches young girls the importance of land ownership, cultivation and financial literacy. “Strong, legal rights to land can provide the rural poor with the opportunity, security, and incentive they need to invest in their land to improve their harvests and their lives,” the group states.
“Landlessness is the biggest indicator of poverty, ” said Sumit Gupta, chief revenue officer in Nadia district. “Using land literacy and land ownership to address these issues is a practical approach, and it has worked.”
He added that girls who attend Landesa’s classes are more likely to stay in school, marry later and own real assets in their own names.
Parents, once wary, now “send their daughters willingly, ” according to program supervisor Dilwara Mondal. “They can see the difference it’s made to them, and to their lives.” The program changes their incentives and shows them that education furthers their own self-interest.
The West has its own vested interest in finding a way to discourage child marriage, since it is no longer a purely exogenous problem.
Child marriage returns to the West
When German Chancellor Angela Merkel invited millions of Middle Eastern migrants to settle in the EU in August 2015, she had not anticipated they would bring child brides with them. By the following July, the nation was home to 1,500 married minors – including 361 girls who were married before the age of 14. A German court validated the marriage of a 15-year-old Syrian girl to her 21-year old cousin. Now, the problem blankets the EU. Sweden allowed migrants to live as man and wife with their underage brides inside government asylum centers. And in Turkey, which has long aspired to EU membership, the directorate of religious affairs ruled that Islamic law allows girls to marry at age nine.
In many ways, this marks a reversion to the mores of pre-Christian Europe. In The Rise of Christianity, Baylor University scholar Rodney Stark writes that classical marriages regularly took place as young as 11 or 12. “Christian women,” however, “married at a substantially older age and had more choice about whom they married.” He attributed the unusually high influx of female converts to the ancient Church’s prohibition of abortion and infanticide (both of which targeted girls), monogamy and the equal expectation of marital fidelity.
“Christianity was unusually appealing because within the Christian subculture women enjoyed far higher status than did women in the Greco-Roman world at large,” Stark writes.
The Western heritage – with its strong belief in the equal dignity of all human beings, private property rights and respect for individual liberty so long as it does not violate the rights of others – drove child marriage out of the continent. Yet that philosophical and moral framework has been lacquered over by generations of economic collectivism, paralyzing guilt, and identity politics. Worse, the faith that inspired it is receding. History and modern experience teach that this creed can reduce the scourge of child marriage, if the West is willing to defend and promote it without apology.