life for a girl: married too young and unwanted?

Two events caught my eye recently: one from Nigeria, the country of my birth and current residence and one from India, country of my heart, family and community.  Nigeria and India are similar in many ways. They are both countries of considerable size, influence and ethnic and religious diversity that dominate their regions – and, in common with every single country and culture in the world, they also see systemic and institutionalised oppression and silencing of girls and women.

In Nigeria, many have been incensed by recent debates in the Senate over constitutional amendments and the age of marriage. At present, section 29 (4) of the constitution states that a Nigerian can renounce citizenship when they are of full age or, in the case of girls, upon their marriage. The committee proposed that the second clause be struck out, in accordance with the Child Rights Act, which limits marriage to those who are at least 18. The Senate voted to pass the amendment but after the vote was counted, Senator Yerima, who had previously come to the attention of Nigerian women’s rights activists when he married a 13 year-old girl from Egypt after divorcing his 17 year-old fourth wife in order to do so, spoke out against the change. He invoked the laws and practices of Islam to defend the practice of adult men marrying young girls and a second vote was taken. This time, several senators changed their vote and, although the Senate voted 60-35 in favour of passing the amendment, as constitutional amendments require a two-thirds majority to pass, the amendment failed by 13 votes.

Meanwhile in India came the news that there are 222 girls in Satara district in Maharashtra that have not had naming ceremonies and are named ‘Nakushi’ which translates to ‘unwanted’ in Marathi. Lest you think this only happens Maharashtra, in Punjab and Haryana, many girls are named ‘Unchahi’ which, yes you guessed right, also translates as ‘unwanted’.

[H/T The Life and Times of an Indian Homemaker]

Many girls are unwanted by many in India, a fact that becomes stark by looking at the population figures. Maharashtra, at 881 women to every 1,000 men, has one of the worst sex ratios at birth and the figures in Satara district are even worse. Haryana has the worst sex ratio in India with 830 girls born to every 1,000 boys. India has the ‘distinction’ of running China a close second when it comes to the numbers of female foetuses that are selectively aborted due to their sex and the numbers of girls who are killed, inadequately cared for or left to die. In response to this, disclosing the sex of foetuses during ultrasound scans has been made illegal – but this prohibition is easily circumvented.

I cannot imagine what life must be like for girls and women growing up, not merely knowing that they are unwanted, but having that fact being drilled into them (and everyone around them) every single time someone calls them. I cannot imagine the psychic strain of not only having everyone call you Nakushi but also having to name yourself as such.

Life for so many girls, and the women they grow up to become, continues to be one of being devalued and of choices being made for you. Patriarchy is the power of older men in particular over all women. This becomes apparent when looking at the number of men who wish to marry and/ or have sex with young girls. Needless to say, this does not happen in Nigeria and India alone and, despite much of the tone of the discourse in Nigeria at present, this is not limited to Islam. Every country, culture and religious group has the phenomenon of older men having sex with young girls – with or without marriage. The UK has been rocked in recent months with revelations of men in the entertainment industry and politics preying on women, many of them young. These revelations, coupled with the Rochdale and Oldham cases of child sexual exploitation, have initiated public debate on male sexual violence against women to an extent not seen in recent times in the UK. And, of course, there is the annual pilgrimage that so many men from Europe and North America make to (usually Southeast Asian) destinations renowned for the ‘opportunity’ to have sex with young girls and boys.

Feminist movements around the world have achieved much. I often trace their (partial) success through the lives of the women in my own family in the last three generations alone and the possibilities we have had to choose the contours of our lives. Ages in India, particularly for that generation, are hardly an exact science but one set of grandparents themselves put their ages at marriage as 14 and 24. My grandmother was an older bride who, having finished Standard V, was highly educated, especially for a girl. People had started to talk and there was some worry that she was getting too old to find a husband. One of the elders of my family put the ages of my other grandparents as 9 and 30 but I am not sure how accurate this is.

Both my grandfathers were good men. They cared and provided for their families, ensured their daughters were educated and one of them even encouraged my grandmother to continue and finish her education. He never treated my female cousins or I differently from my brother, took part in the food preparation in the house and while growing up was the only adult I knew who would never make me feel that he knew more than me because he was older. I credit him with a lot of my intellectual development. Male champions of women’s rights are considered a relatively recent phenomenon but here was a man, born at the beginning of the twentieth century who lived the practice of women and men being equal without even thinking or talking about it. My other grandfather died months after I was born but I am told that he was a remarkable man also.

That they married my grandmothers when they were so young was completely normalised at that time. Men were naturally older than their brides. They could only get married after they were financially established. Parents rushed to have their daughters married before they got too ‘old’ after which there would be of little value in the marriage market, in order to give them financial stability. As with foot binding in China, parents married off their daughters young out of love, before age meant they lost their marriageability. Survival for women depended on their husbands. It was your number one responsibility as a father and mother (or elder brother) to see your daughters (or sisters) married well. By the age of 15, most if not all the women would be married so, even if a man wanted to, there would likely not be any girls older than that available for marriage.

If married before the onset of puberty, the practice was to stay with parents until the first period, which marks sexual maturity, at which point girls are sent to the house of their husband and his family, to return to their birth family home for the birth of the first child. We do not know how long this has been happening. Often our ancestors are more progressive than we imagine, in ways that are both surprising and hidden from subsequent generations as history and tradition gets rewritten. Notwithstanding this, it is likely that women were married as girls for at least a century, if not longer, before my grandmothers were married.

This continues to be the case for many in India.

Every time my grandmother begs that she wants to see me married before she dies so that she can be sure of my future economic security, I remind myself of her reality – which is so remote from the luxury of the existence of my choices.

Even at that time however, this was starting to change. The movement for independence was not just against British rule but also for a fundamental refiguring of society, with a strong strain of changing ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’ that was against rights. This included overturning the caste system, normalising widow remarriage and fighting against practices of child marriage. A couple of decades later, and in time for the youngest two of my grandmother’s sisters, life for women in my family (in a certain city, of a certain caste and of a certain community) had transformed. Marriage was still a given but most of my aunts finished school and many of them even went to university. This was a time where school and university fees were not as high as they are now so families were able to afford to send their daughters and sons into education.  My mother went to medical school and got married at the age of 32.

This state of affairs is where it has stayed now in our family although there are still echoes with our past. Our marriage ceremony on the bridal side starts with the chapra puja, the erection of a canopy of trees outside the home of her family through which the women in the house pray to the ancestors. This is to signify to everyone in the locality that there is a girl in the house who has started menstruating and so is eligible for marriage. A wedding follows days later. That this practice is still followed for the marriages of women in their 20s and 30s today who have chosen their own partners illustrates continuity with the past.

Now of course, this is just one family in India, one that is relatively privileged. The legal age for marriage in India may be 18 for women and 21 for men but women are still being married as girls in my country. Much needs to be done to change attitudes, behaviour and realities of and power relations between girls and men, not just in India but also globally. Much also needs to be done to acknowledge that different groups of girls are marginalised and oppressed in different ways. For example, despite the advances made in achievement of the rights of (some) women in my family, not a single member of my family has come out openly as queer to us all.

I take hope from the story of the women in my family – and of the work being done by and with women across communities and localities around the world. I also take hope in the strength and resistance of the feminist movement and in the impact this has had and continues to have on government policy. In Satara, district officials are now planning to conduct a naming ceremony for all the Nakushis and allowing them to choose their own names. In Nigeria, outrage over Senator Yerima’s remarks and the Senate vote has sparked debate about child marriage, not just on blogs and social media, but also in many homes and workplaces. The Nigerian Feminist Forum called on people to campaign to protect the right of the girl child and activists are collecting petition signatures in locations across the country. Senators are now seeking to distance themselves from the vote. David Marks, President of the Senate, is justifying the vote by claiming that senators were blackmailed by Ahmed Yerima as they did not want to seem anti Islamic. In response to protesters gathering with placards to protest his support for the constitutional clause, his summoning by the leaders of the councils he represents and his denunciation by women leaders across the six council areas, Ayo Akinyelure, the senator representing Ondo Central Senatorial District, even burst into tears claiming, ‘I voted in error. I can never in my life support under age marriage. Whatever this might have caused my people, please, forgive me. I will do whatever is humanly possible at my disposal to ensure that this thing is removed from the constitution.’ That is a pretty amazing turnaround. Let us see what happens next.

I see so much cause for optimism when it comes to women’s rights and the achievement of feminist movements across time and around the world. Although we are seeing a global backlash to the realisation of the human rights of women at the moment, justified by recourse to fossilised notions of ‘tradition,’ ‘culture’ and ‘religion’, progress continues to be made. We are part of a long line of women’s rights activists stretching back into history and forwards into the future. We see the struggle against child marriage as a relatively recent phenomenon. However, although child marriages have been performed in every country at some point in history, there has also been resistance against the practice throughout the ages. This is resistance that does not just come from outside the community or outside the country. In Afghanistan, for example, there are folk songs against child marriage that are centuries old. I feel so lucky to have been born at this time (and to my progressive family) but also hopeful that our daughters and sons will be even luckier than I am.