Despite protestations that women are no longer, if ever it were so, discriminated against simply by being women, or that sex/gender discrimination impacts at least equally, if not more, upon men, the OECD reports in its latest Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) that despite 'some improvement', women continue to 'face barriers' preventing their full contribution to social and economic life.
At the New York launch of SIGI 2012, Michelle Bachelet, Director of UN Women, emphasised the importance of women's equal participation as 'fundamental to democracy and justice', this lying at the heart of monitoring the factors included in SIGI.
Paid employment, female labour force participation, secondary school enrolment for girls, and child and maternal mortality rates figure strongly in SIGI, statistics showing that countries with 'higher levels of discrimination against women perform more poorly on [these] development indicators'. Sex/gender based social and economic discrimination militate against women and girls' freedom and ability to participate equally in the polity. As Carlos Alvarez, Deputy Director of the OECD Development Centre, concludes: 'Legal reforms, economic incentives and community mobilisation are critical to rectifying this social discrimination and economic injustice.' A major obstacle is, he says, child marriage. SIGI shows over half the girls between the ages of fifteen and nineteen in countries such as Niger and Mali are married. Earlier, UNICEF reported that in Niger, Chad and Bangladesh more than a third of women aged twenty to twenty-four were married from at least the age of fifteen.
African and Middle Eastern nations harbour the 'highest levels of discrimination' of all countries ranked in SIGI. In these regions, child marriage predominates. Yet child marriage is not isolated there. In other parts of the world, attention is increasingly focused on the harmful practice of forced and arranged marriage, with laws being instituted to end it.
The gross denial of rights to girl children in marriage and its consequences are so patent they ought require no recitation. Yet child marriage continues with girls being 'promised' at an early age, not infrequently at birth, being traded, 'given' as recompense for some crime alleged to have been committed by the child's relatives upon the family into which she is sold, or used to consolidate advantageous relations between families, villages or cultural groups.
Ultimately, as with forced and arranged marriages outside Africa and the Middle East - or occurring there because the girls and young women are taken back for that purpose by their families who have migrated elsewhere – the phenomenon is about control. Women who are allowed or able to grow to adulthood without being obliged to comply with patriarchal power exercised through a father and then through a husband are far better able to exercise rights, to enjoy independence of thought and action, and to affirm the autonomy that should accrue to a fully-fledged human being. Such women are perceived, too often, as dangerous. Outside the paterfamilias circle of power, who knows what a woman might do?
Enormous risks to life, health and physical and emotional wellbeing, poor education with consequent lack of paid employment opportunities and denial of economic independence flow from child marriage. In India, despite the legal marriage age for females being eighteen years and for males twenty-one, child marriage continues. This is particularly so, but not only, in villages and amongst tribal groups. Meanwhile in Afghanistan and Pakistan, an emphasis upon women as a commodity to resolve family and intra- or inter-village and tribal disputes places girl children in a perpetual condition of vulnerability to marriage at ages well below puberty.
In India, mass child marriages take place on Akshaya Tritiya and other days set down in the traditional calendar for such 'celebrations'. UNICEF reports in its 2012 'State of the World's Children' compilation that in some parts of India, over thirty-seven per cent of girls are married before they reach eighteen years, and many long before that birthday. These children are subjected to the violence of rape and other sexual abuses, then to miscarriages and (where they are unable to procure a termination or are prevented from doing so) childbirth followed by the responsibilities of motherhood when they ought to be being mothered themselves. Being children, the girls are at higher risk than adult of women of pregnancy complications and bodily damage, including genital-tract tearing (fistulas). Girls often seek steralisation to avoid the risk and pain of multiple pregnancies, which are common.
General health problems abound, including malnutrition and severe anaemia, both exacerbated by pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding. According to WHO, a girl giving birth at fifteen years is five times more likely to die in childbirth than is a young woman of nineteen or above. Infants born to fifteen-year-olds are sixty per cent more likely to die.
Girls traded into marriage are denied their rights to education. Domestic labour and childrearing take precedence over literacy, numeracy and general primary and secondary education, with higher education being remote. In some countries (such as Southern Sudan), 'bride price' dictates denial of education to girls: an educated girl is perceived as less 'valuable' than one who has spent her childhood attending to home chores. Tradition has it that a woman wielding a pen is not only less valuable than one wielding a brush and broom, but that the ability to write has a negative impact. Hence, girls are removed from school in order to maintain their family's capacity to negotiate a higher 'sales docket' – whether it be a greater number of cows, pigs, goats or other farm animals, bushels of produce such as barley or other grain, or cash-in-hand.
In India, the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act 2006 (India) came into effect in 2007, setting penalties at two years' hard labour, a fine or both for those found guilty of marrying under-age girls. Every state was obliged to appoint officers to carryout its provisions, including community education, taking steps to prevent child marriages, and notifying police of breaches of the Act.
In Australia, Germany and the United Kingdom, governments have been alert - or at least alerted - to the spread of under-age marriage, leading to efforts to prohibit the practice whether at home or through the taking of youngsters abroad to avoid domestic marriage laws. Legislation is designed, too, to address marriages where consent is lacking, albeit the parties are of marriage age.
She is also Visiting Fellow, Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge.