Economic and Social History Blog

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Position of women 1: Child brides

For some marriage is seen as the ultimate rite of passage for young women, an indication of reaching adulthood. In America, and countries heavily influenced by Anglo-American culture, the ubiquitous white dress, diamond rings and expensive ceremonies have become almost mandatory. Over 36 million people watched the coverage of the royal wedding depicted above. However a key part of this idealised image is that it involves full-grown women and men who enter into the union voluntarily and willingly as consenting adults. Often the bride and groom will be of a similar age and stage in life (Kate and William, shown above met at university, married over a decade later and she is half a year older than him). In fact the resulting marriages are meant to be companionable and partners are expected to support each other “in sickness and in health”. This, however, is not how marriage is conducted in all parts of the world. The two images here are from a photo project by Stephanie Sinclair who set about documenting the phenomenon of child-marriage around the world. To the left we see Ghulam Haider, at the tender age of 11, being married off to a man 30 years her senior in settlement of a father’s gambling debt. To the left we see Tahani and Ghada, married when they were under 10 years of age to men in their mid twenties. All three of these girls expressed the desire to have stayed longer in school rather than start married life.

These customs, so clearly from a “Western view” detrimental to the girls involved, have nothing to do with the girls’ personal desires and ambitions everything to do with how women are valued in society, what their role is within their family grouping and what opportunities are available to them later in life. In situations where a female child is little more than a financial burden on her parents, where she will not be the one to care for them in their old age and where her opportunities to work outside the home are non-existent the temptation to marry her off young to a man who wants a young, fertile bride is high.

Historically child marriages in Western Europe were an elite phenomenon – used to secure political alliances between noble houses etc. The image to the left is of the marriage of 1697 of Marie Adélaïde of Savoy, age 12 to Louis, heir apparent of France age 15. In a series of linked posts I will be exploring a number of news stories which relate to marriage practices and the position of women to try and highlight some of the factors driving the persistence of certain customs and traditions which result in poor outcomes for women and particularly young girls.