Child Marriage And Its Skewed Ethics Debate

Miu Kikuchi, Apr 1, 2024

What do over 70% of Malian, Chadian, and Nigerian women have in common? They get married before the age of 18 [1]. Though child marriage carries negative connotations that evoke uncomfortable emotions, its consequences, specifically to girls’ health and education, are graver than vague assumptions of human rights infringements. Surprisingly, however, there have been intriguing attempts to underscore nuance in child marriage’s morality through arguments of pragmatism and cultural relativism. Ultimately, there are significant flaws to these counterarguments as they do not allow for a direct evaluation of child marriage’s ethicality and have a false understanding of what culture means. This coupled with the practice’s fatal effects on girls contributes to a more comprehensive understanding of the immorality of child marriage, which helps us appreciate recent forms of activism combatting the practice.


Child marriage is a phrase that often gets thrown around without most people understanding what it exactly entails. Child marriage refers to any marriage where at least one member is under the age of 18 [2]. Child marriage is one of the most prevalent examples of a UN-coined term, Harmful Cultural Practices, which are any discriminatory practices often associated with nations of low economic development in the South — known as the Global South — that usually target girls and have become normalized with time [3]. The UN has long been concerned about child marriage, implementing policies like UNICEF’s Sustainable Development Goals to abolish it through enacting laws, increasing education, empowering women and girls to challenge norms, and more, as well as UNICEF’s Global Programme to End Child Marriage. One of the main causes of child marriage is poverty [4]. By marrying off their daughter, families are relieved of financial burden, since the fewer people they have in the household, the less they have to spend on necessities and the more they can spend on paying off debts or resolving disputes. This is especially the case after humanitarian catastrophes such as wars, natural disasters, or political instability, as more families face severe financial adversities and turn to child marriage as a coping mechanism. Child marriage is also exacerbated by families’ preferences for sons with the logic that the profits made off of selling their daughters can be resources used to raise their sons. Moreover, the pervasiveness of child marriage should not be underestimated. In addition to over 70% of Malian, Chadian, and Nigerian women undergoing child marriages as previously mentioned, 43% of Afghan women and 51% of Nepali women do as well . Though developing countries like these in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia [5] have the highest rates of child marriage, some forms of it exist in most countries around the world, including the United States [6]. Collectively, over 64 million women between the ages of 20 and 24 have undergone child marriages. 


Though it is an overt fact that child marriage is not a widely accepted practice, the countless consequences experienced by girls are much more dire than vague assumptions of human rights violations. 


To start, distinct areas of girls’ health are maimed, namely their mental and physical well-being. Especially when coupled with adversities within marriage such as difficulty conceiving or domestic violence, girls can experience acute psychological distress [7]. Studies have shown that Iranian women who got married as children had a 2.77 times increased risk of getting depression than women who got married as adults. Those who were sexually assaulted showed even more signs of psychiatric disorders beyond depression, such as PTSD. Ethiopian girls who receive child marriage proposals are more than twice as likely to report suicidal thoughts and actualize them compared to girls with no such requests. Physical health risks are no less severe, and specific dangers are experienced throughout multiple stages of child marriage [8]. During pregnancy, girls are not only more likely to suffer and die from malaria in malaria-infested places, but they are also more likely to be infected with similar diseases such as anemia, pulmonary edema, and hypoglycemia. In Kenya, Zambia, and Uganda, married girls are more likely to get HIV, and the combination of malaria and HIV is particularly lethal due to the diminished effects of anti-malaria medication. The rate of cervical cancer increases with child marriage, as well, because immature cervixes are more vulnerable to HIV infections and cancer growth [9]. Additionally, new issues arise during labor. Girls’ bodies, specifically the pelvis, are typically not developed enough to handle the level of intensity associated with child delivery, and injuries like obstetric fistula, “an abnormal opening between a woman’s genital tract and her urinary tract or rectum”, are fairly common [10]. 


Beyond psychological and physical chronic health detriments, child marriage comes at the cost of education, with girls getting pulled out of schools and having to move away from educational facilities [11]. To make matters worse, the range of health complications that come with child marriage makes it difficult to resume school. Education is one of the few tools the girls have to break free from this sacrifice of their bodies for profit, as it can help them make more informed decisions about their future and even be financially independent. Outstandingly, 12 years of schooling can decrease instances of child marriage by 64% around the world [12]. By stripping away education, child marriage jeopardizes the girls’ one way ticket out of this horrific and heavily normalized practice. 


Therefore, with all of these ramifications on girls, it is an understatement to think that child marriage is solely a misogynistic and repulsive practice, as it drastically and permanently alters girls’ lives. 


However, despite these pressing repercussions on girls, there have been counterarguments or attempts to underscore nuance regarding the morality of child marriage by considering the practice in the context of the circumstances in which it is practiced. Though compelling and important to acknowledge, astute consideration of these counterarguments exposes the significant flaws in shifting the discourse away from evaluating the ethicality of the practice itself and misconceptions about the limitations of “context."


According to an anthropologist researcher at the University of California - Santa Barbara, Dr. Susan Schaffnit, child marriage may be the “best locally available option”, and therefore people should not be too quick to decry it [13]. Being a married citizen can improve a girl’s societal standing, and marrying early can ensure a rather dignified future. However, child marriage potentially being the best pragmatic option in a place overwhelmed with economic corruption arguably does not say much about the righteousness of the practice. Utilitarianism should not be a reliable method of determining morality especially when it comes to something as critical as human rights issues; a practice producing the most benefits or minimizing the most costs should not and does not necessarily equate to it being acceptable. Although stealing money from a bank can theoretically produce great benefits for a thief such as financial stability, it is undoubtedly a morally deplorable act and should be accompanied by severe consequences if caught. 


Another counterargument is that the action of condemning cultural practices — something that this paper has been doing up to this point — may be open to condemnation from a cultural relativist point of view. Cultural relativism is a philosophical concept claiming that the morality of various practices should not be judged based on foreign standards but rather evaluated within the cultural context in which these practices are practiced [14]. Because economic instability fuels child marriage, it may be more acceptable in developing countries that face financial struggles than in developed countries that do not. However, while it is important to respect cultures and contexts different from the ones we may be familiar with, defending this concept can open Pandora’s box [15]. From an outside country’s point of view, upholding a cultural relativist perspective makes it nearly impossible for them to criticize the cultural practices of other countries because this could implicate the superiority of their ethical standard or, to put it blatantly, cultural ignorance. This leaves them with no choice but to permit cultural actions other countries may partake in and does not allow for open conversations to be had about their morality, even if they are undoubtedly inexcusable. If the cultural relativist argument were to be fully enacted, no foreign entities would feel any responsibility to intervene in controversial practices. Imagine how much worse things would be, considering countries now commit heinous acts left and right even with the knowledge that other nations and international organizations are unafraid to get involved or forcefully reprimand them. While it is difficult to definitively conclude whose standard we should judge cultural practices by, whether one country, multiple countries, or a specific international community, the costs that come with having a standard are nothing compared to not having any at all. Another issue with cultural relativism is that from the country engaging in these contentious practices’ perspective, this cultural relativist argument can be leveraged to halt ethical debates that may challenge their customs, especially because it is often employed by corrupt leaders who wish to keep utilizing their self-interested powers [16]. They praise and defend the types of lifestyles their descendants escaped and they, themselves, do not want to return to. An example of this is Westernized leaders in Tanzania who forcefully imposed villagization within the community, a supposedly historic African lifestyle, despite major opposition from the public. The elite group in Tanzania dictates what we perceive as Tanzanian culture even if their desires are not shared by the nation's majority population. In that case, it indicates that our idea of culture may be skewed based on the prominence or the lack thereof, of certain members in a society. Another example, perhaps more similar to child marriage, is Chinese foot binding which began as men’s titillating interest in dancer’s feet in the 10th century and has persisted until the mid 1900s [17]. As the practice was a female sign of compliance to men and increased marital prospects, its longevity is likely owed to the girls’ expected subservience and lack of ability to resist despite its appalling procedure and pain. Evidently, culture does not always sufficiently reflect the views and values of an entire community, but rather it is defined by those in power. Therefore, advocates of the application of cultural relativism to cultural practices, including child marriage, make an idealistic presumption that a nation’s culture is one that is ostensibly approved by all of its citizens, when in reality it can be a culture of a few and thrive off of the invisibility of women and young girls — which defeats their entire argument about respecting a country’s culture. 


Holistic exploration of child marriage, specifically the dismaying consequences on girls and weak counterarguments, amply demonstrates the practice’s immorality. What is more, understanding child marriage in its full complexity beyond its vague, negative connotations through its skewed ethics debate helps us appreciate forms of activism combatting the practice. For example, female superpowers, Michelle Obama, focusing on education, Amal Clooney, focusing on legal rights, and Melinda French Gates, focusing on medical care post-pregnancy, recently created an on-the-ground coalition to fight against child marriage in Malawi and South Africa [18], where the practice is outlawed but is still pervasive due to its long history [19] and the lack of enforcement and loopholes around existing legislation [20]. Though the UN has policies that attempt to abolish child marriage as previously mentioned, Clooney exposes their inefficiency in producing results and highlights the importance of philanthropic movements like theirs that are supervising activism on the ground level. For example, Mrs. Clooney and the Women Lawyers Association of Malawi, which is funded by her Waging Justice for Women programme, physically travel to rural areas to inform girls of their legal rights. Grassroots initiatives give voice to women and young girls and can physically aid them in dismantling something as harmful yet prevalent as child marriage. Moreover, eliminating child marriage may have economic advantages for the practicing country as a whole. The yearly welfare profits in Niger were expected to be as much as $1.7 billion by 2023, $4.8 billion in Ethiopia, and nearly $1 billion in Nepal [21]. The reason for this is that girls who engage in child marriage are, on average, likely to have 26% more children than girls who do not, increasing government spending for social welfare programs. When a lot is clearly at stake, activists like Mrs. Obama, Mrs. Clooney, and Ms. French Gates are indispensable and we must support these campaigns to the best of our ability.



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[2]United Nations. “Child and forced marriage, including in humanitarian settings.” ohchr.

[3]UNICEF. “Harmful practices.” UNICEF.

[4] Das, Parmita. 2018. “The Economics of Child Marriage – Berkeley Economic Review.” Berkeley Economic Review.

[5] UNICEF. “Ending CHILD MARRIAGE Progress and prospects.” UNICEF Data.

[6] Sandstrom, Aleksandra, and Angelina E. Theodorou. September 12th, 2016. “Many countries allow children to marry.” Pew Research Center.

[7] Burgess, Rochelle A., Mairi Jeffery, Sabina A. Odero, Kelly Rose-Clarke, and Delanjathan Devakumar. January 12th, 2022. “Overlooked and unaddressed: A narrative review of mental health consequences of child marriages.” NCBI.

[8] Nour, Nawal M. “Child Marriage: A Silent Health and Human Rights Issue.” NCBI.

[9] Khalaf, May K., Faris A. Rasheed, and Saad A. Hussain. 2015. “Association between Early Marriage and Other Sociomedical Characteristics with the Cervical Pap Smear Results in Iraqi Women.” Scientific Research Publishing.

[10] “Obstetric fistula.” 2018. World Health Organization (WHO).

[11] Saini, Bhagyashree. 2020. “Child marriage cuts dreams short – the role of education as a game changer.” Voices of Youth.

[12] Bish, Joseph J. 2021. “A LOOK INTO HOW A QUALITY EDUCATION CAN CHANGE LIVES.” Population Media Center.

[13] Logan, Jim. 2019. “'Child Marriages' — Coercion or Choice? | The Current.” UC Santa Barbara News.

[14] “Cultural relativism.” Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

[15] “Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism – Culture and Psychology.” n.d. Maricopa Open Digital Press. Accessed March 5, 2024.

[16] Donnelly, Jack. 1984. “Cultural Relativism and Universal Human Rights.” Human Rights Quarterly 6 (November): 20.

[17] Smith, Tiffany M. 2024. “Footbinding | History, Culture & Effects.” Britannica.

[18] Mohan, Megha, Yousef Eldin, and Emma Ailes. 2023. “Obama, Clooney and Gates: 'We can end child marriage in a generation.'” BBC.

[19] “Child Marriage.” UNFPA Malawi.

[20] “South Africa.” Girls Not Brides.

[21] Edwards, Sophie. 2017. “Child marriage set to cost developing countries billions of dollars by 2030.” Devex.