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Early marriage and the limits of freedom

The framing of early marriage as slavery prevents us from understanding its actual causes and effects.

Mass marriage ceremony in Madhya Pradesh, India, in 2012. Devendra Dube/Demotix. All Rights Reserved.

Early marriage is a recent entrant into the discourse and advocacy around modern slavery. It is compared to slavery because it entails a lack of informed consent, an inability to leave the marriage, and enforced domesticity. The interest in early marriage—and indeed the shift in terminology from ‘child’ to ‘early’—also stems from the sudden focus on the adolescent girl in development (the ‘girl effect’). Major development agencies in partnership with corporations are increasingly singling out the adolescent girl as key to economic growth and poverty eradication in low-income countries. In order for adolescent girls to fill this role, these activists say, risky ‘cultural’ practices like early marriage must be addressed.

Causes for early marriage

In the rhetoric around both modern slavery and development, culture and tradition become substitutes for understanding power relations and the structural factors determining the status of women and girls in the global south. It is, after all, easier to ‘save’ women from culture than it is to truly appraise and redress the feminisation of poverty, only one of the complex causes of underdevelopment.

Poverty and the accompanying lack of mobility and resources are often greater drivers than custom or tradition when it comes to poor families’ choices in marriage. In a country like India, child marriage persists even though it is illegal for girls under 18 and boys under 21 to get married. More than the elite and the middle classes, the practice is widespread amongst the poor and ‘backward’ castes, dalits and minority communities like Muslims.

Access to education, work, or savings and loan activities are typically presented as alternatives to marriage. However, there are strong structural constraints to considering education as a magic bullet: poor quality education, the lack of requisite skills and training, not to mention the soaring ranks of the educated unemployed. Without a wider commitment towards redistributive policies, education provides no ideal solution. The employment solutions presented by development organisations— microfinance, income-generation schemes, etc.—are market-based, invariably piecemeal, intermittent, and low-paid. They often end up deepening rather than reducing the vulnerability of young women in an unfair and unsafe labour market.

Legislation and the control of women’s sexuality

It is clear that the law has failed to curb early marriage in India. In the name of ‘protecting’ women, the law has actually strengthened familial and wider societal control over young women’s sexuality. Flavia Agnes, an Indian feminist lawyer, has drawn our attention to the increasing number of ‘elopement cases’ that see young people not only marrying partners of their choice, but doing so especially when they transgress caste and communal boundaries. Such ‘elopement marriages’ have recently been the focus of international media attention given their association with ‘honour killings’ at the hands of khap panchayats (caste-based village councils) in rural north India. Agnes shows how families, in collusion with the police and community heads, use the legal provision around child marriage to curb such unions. The girl is falsely projected as a minor and the boy is slapped with a case of abduction or even rape. In effect, the law works to criminalise—and not just regulate—such transgressive forms of conjugality.

Given this context, and especially the role of the state in regulating female sexuality, should intervention into this arena be purely punitive by criminalising all such marriages? Or would it be necessary to uphold, as Agnes says, the free choices of minor girls and provide legal validation for their early marriages?

Coercion, consent and the limits of freedom

Besides the practical limitations of ‘solving’ the problem of early marriage (whether through the law or otherwise), the advocacy surrounding the issue seems to rest on problematic assumptions about marriage itself. Activists distinguish between ‘normal’ marriages, which are associated with mutual consent, respect and equality, and early and forced marriages, which are considered coercive and exploitative. But how easy is it to draw a line between marriages that are voluntary and ones that are forced; between free and unfree forms of marriage?

In the case of early marriage, the category of the ‘child’ serves to render issues of choice and agency irrelevant. Because children are constituted in mainstream liberal thought as entirely lacking agency and autonomy, it is literally inconceivable to view them as choosing subjects. Instead, they are reduced to objects of rescue and salvation by those seeking to ‘empower’ them. The discursive transformation of ‘child marriage’ into ‘slavery’ thus obliterates the difficult issue of young women’s choice in marriage.

Forced marriage is treated remarkably similarly. The most substantial research on this issue has been conducted amongst South Asian communities in the UK. It has shown a polarised understanding of consent and coercion based on a liberal privileging of free will. This fails to appreciate the varying levels of expectations, pressures and constraints that all women, regardless of age, face in marriage matters. The consent-coercion binary cannot represent the experience of the vast majority of women and girls for whom consent is potentially a product of necessity, but where necessities or compulsions cannot be straightforwardly read as ‘coercion’.

The line between freedom and unfreedom, as the critiques of modern slavery published by this outlet have made clear, is difficult to draw. This is particularly true in the case of women. Such a divide rests on exceptionalising certain forms of unfreedom with terms like ‘slavery’, while at the same time normalising the generally unfree conditions under which a majority of people live, work, love and marry. Conversations around early and forced marriage seem to similarly sequester unfreedom into particular spaces, associated with particular practices and subjects.

Violence against women is thereby exceptionalised in ‘cultural’ practices of early and forced marriage, while the violent, coercive and paternal aspects of the institution of marriage itself remain normal. Exceptionalising the ‘child’ in narratives of development, violence and rescue speaks, if anything, to our tolerance for women’s general state of unfreedom—their inability to leave marriage and to not be financially, socially and politically dependent on it (factors that make being unmarried near impossible in some contexts). The exceptionalising of certain circumstances or ages as slavery does not enhance women’s freedom. If anything, it ends up normalising their unfreedom in marriage, in the market, in the state, and in the violence of the routine and everyday.

About the author

Srila Roy is Senior Lecturer at the Department of Sociology, University of the Witwatersrand. She uses a postcolonial and transnational feminist lens to research a number of issues broadly concerned with the gender and sexual politics of India/South Asia. She is the author of Remembering Revolution: Gender, Violence and Subjectivity in India’s Naxalbari Movement (2012), editor of New South Asian Feminisms (2012), and co-editor of New Subaltern Politics (2015). She tweets @srilaroy.

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