Distinguishing Reality from Stereotype in the End Child Marriage Movement

Marriage during adolescence is common in many low-income nations, and can be detrimental to the wellbeing of girls and women. But current understanding of early marriage is clouded by harmful stereotypes.
Distinguishing Reality from Stereotype in the End Child Marriage Movement

By David W. Lawson and Susan B. Schaffnit

Research in the social sciences often begins with an observation of a puzzling behavior, with researchers asking "why do people do that?". But our recent paper in Nature Human Behavior, "Parent-Offspring Conflict Unlikely to Drive 'Child Marriage' in Northwestern Tanzania", began when we observed a striking image of a behavior we didn't immediately recognize, leading us to ask -"do people really do that?".

The image, a poster displayed in a village office in rural Mwanza, Tanzania, warns of the dangers of female “child marriage” – defined by the development sector as any marriage before 18 years of age. It is a cartoon drawing of a man happily holding a stack of money as a distressed young girl is led away by an older man. The only other female in the image, a woman and presumably the girl’s mother, also looks visibly distressed. Two other men look on with contentment. Under the image, logos for UNICEF and Save the Children are displayed and Swahili text above the image reads: 

“A child is not a commodity. Do not let her marry before she finishes school. Parents and caregivers, give your children a better life by giving them an education and do not let them marry”. 

We knew early marriage was common in this area of Tanzania; roughly one third of girls marry before their 18th birthday. But was this campaign image depicting a local reality? To address this question, we collaborated with the Tanzanian National Institute of Medical Research. After conducting 1,000 surveys with girls and young women, and several focus groups with their parents, our answer is no. Instead, we suggest the narrative presented in the poster, of a young girl being sold into marriage at the delight of her father, presents an inaccurate, harmful stereotype of the African family.

The first inaccuracy is that the girl in the image appears perhaps 10-12 years old, marrying a much older man. In fact, she looks exactly how you might expect when you think of a ‘child bride’. However, the large majority of ‘child marriages’ in Tanzania (and many other contexts) take place, not in childhood per se, but in late adolescence, and often to men just a few years older than themselves. In our study, less than 2% of female marriages occurred under 15 years. This issue reflects a failure of the end child marriage movement to engage with the diversity of experiences of marriage before age 18 years, and to acknowledge adolescence as a time of emerging maturity and independence.

Second, early marriage is presented as a coercive act. In contrast, we document autonomy in the choice of who and when to marry among adolescents in rural Mwanza, and find little evidence that marriage in adolescence is damaging to wellbeing. In fact, married 15-17 year olds reported higher empowerment than their similarly aged, unmarried peers, and marriage at all ages brought social status in the local community which could motivate early marriage in some circumstances. To understand why early marriage is common worldwide, we must acknowledge these incentives and not conflate early marriage with forced marriage. 

Finally, while bridewealth can bring financial relief to parents living in poverty, it is hard to imagine any parent actively delighting in a scenario that comes at a cost to their daughter’s wellbeing (like the father in the poster). Rather, bridewealth is viewed locally as a sign of respect to the wife and her family; it can serve to bond the marrying families together. Moreover, in this context, women are able to (and frequently do) leave unhappy marriages. Yet the poster presents a caricature of greedy African men selling their daughters into marriage, concerned only with money.

Why is all this important?

The Sustainable Development Goals include a global target to abolish marriage under 18 years by 2030. This is a well-intentioned target and there is good reason to believe that early marriage can be costly to girls, especially at very young ages. However, inaccurate stereotypes like the one presented in the poster can falsely attribute the hardships of girls and young women to the moral failings of their society. This blinds us to the broader structural factors that constrain peoples' choices and ultimately perpetuate behaviors such as early marriage. Designing more effective initiatives to improve the lives of girls and women around the globe will require grounding our understanding in reality, not stereotypes.

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