Child marriage and the human rights of girls

Delaware, on May 9, 2018, became the first US state to prohibit child marriage, removing loopholes and exceptions that currently exists in marriage laws in every other state. This historic legislation–the first of its kind in the US–champions and protects the rights of children, especially girls. **This blog is a repost from 2016.

A child bride in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Source: SAM Nasim, Creative Commons
A child bride in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Source: SAM Nasim, Creative Commons

 

Imagine for a moment that you are a 13-year-old girl. Your parents are no longer as cool as they were when you were in elementary school but life on the whole is pretty chill. With the exception of awkward junior high encounters with people of the opposite sex, the occasional bully, unbearable PE class, and dreadful puberty, being a kid isn’t awful. Personally, you’ve graduated from earning coins for your chores to actual dollar bills and from having a pink room filled with stuffed animals to one with posters of your favorite boy band and magazine cutouts of women you want to dress like when you turn 18. At 18, real life happens. At 18, you’re an adult and the whole world knows it! Everything about your 13-year-old life is moving towards adulthood until your parents let you know that one of their friends is interested in marrying you. He is a nice man who is at least 10, 20, 30 years older than you so he will be able to take care of you, just like you were his own child. Except that you would not be his child, you’d be his wife. In all the ways a wife takes care of a husband…

 

Children are not small adults. They are molded by socialization as a result of the physical and cultural contexts of their lives (Boothby, 2006; Goodhart, 2013). They are vulnerably presented and completely dependent upon adults, typically parents, for the purpose of nurturing potential and protecting innocence (Garbarino, 1991). Garbarino asserts, “childhood is a special period in the life course when we shield the individual from the direct demands of the economic, sexual, and political forces of the adult world” (p. 10). Childhood is the loci for growth and development.  

The United Nations International Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), signed in 1989, defines who qualifies as a child and outlines ideas on how to care for those most vulnerable among us. For the purpose of this blog post, I will appropriate the definition of a child as defined by the CRC:

The Convention defines a ‘child’ as a person below the age of 18, unless the laws of a particular country set the legal age for adulthood younger. The Committee on the Rights of the Child, the monitoring body for the Convention, has encouraged States to review the age of majority if it is set below 18 and to increase the level of protection for all children under 18.

The notion of childhood was recognized as law by the international community with the passage of the CRC (Garbarino, 1991; Goodhart, 2013). The childhood experiences of the female differ so dramatically from the male. In 2013, Malala Yousafzai’s speech to the UN leadership, reintroduced the female experience into the global narrative as she requested improvement for and protection of the rights of women and girls. There is a significant disparity and cultural bias when attempting to define the daily lives of children, particularly girls, living in the global South and developing nations as compared to those in the global North and developed nations (Boothby, 2006). The United States of America is the only country in the world that has not ratified the CRC.

Girl wearing a wedding dress. Source: Amy Ann Brockmeyer, pixabay.com
Girl wearing a wedding dress. Source: Amy Ann Brockmeyer, pixabay.com

Child marriage is legal in the United States. In Massachusetts between 2010 and 2014, 200 children were married. The state does not have a “minimum age to get married, as long as minors receive judicial approval. Minors don’t need a lawyer, and the petition is only half a page. Parental approval is required, although with several exceptions.”

There were 4,500 children married over the course of 2004-2013 in the state of Virginia, and more than 200 of them were under the age of 15. On July 1, 2016, the state of Virginia passed a law that only adults could marry in the state. This new law replaced portions of the marriage law that had allowed for girls “13 or younger to marry if she had parental consent and was pregnant.” The new law has set the minimum marriage age at 18 but it also allows for emancipated minors of 16 to enter into marriage if a judge decides to overrule the law. Judges have the power to overturn this newly implemented law on the basis of four ideas:

  1. If the minor is not being compelled to marry
  2. If the parties are mature enough to get married
  3. If the marriage will not endanger the minor
  4. If marriage is in the best interest of the minor

Child marriage is illegal in some parts of the world, although it is common. Guatemala has recently increased the age of marriage to 18, while acknowledging there will need to be a cultural paradigm as to the relevant implication of “recognizing the full potential of girls and reframing how girls should be treated in society”. In Nigeria, child marriage is illegal; however, in the Northern, predominantly Muslim region of the country, the law is implied rather than enforced. Fifteen year-old Nigerian Wasila Tasi’u is a murderer. She poisoned her 35-year-old husband and three other men. For ten months, Tasi’u awaited trial in a Nigerian jail where she faced the death penalty. She was acquitted and will live with a foster family. Maryam Uwais believes this to be “an entirely avoidable tragedy, leaving in its wake four dead men and a thoroughly traumatised little girl. Poison – the only feasible escape to freedom – devised from the wild imagination of a naive, depressed little girl caught up in a painful forced marriage to a much older man. A tough lesson for families, communities and a government that is still ambivalent about sanctioning the perpetrators of child marriage.” The social justice organization, Girls Not Brides, has ranked Nigeria 13th in countries with the highest rates of child marriage, despite a governmental declaration entitled, Child Rights Act of 2003–which was created to make every action concerning a child and his/her best interest, a paramount consideration.

Child marriage impacts the female child more than the male child. Childhood creates the revelation of identity.

Young females in the West and developing nations should capitalize on their girlhood, embracing it as a time to discover themselves—their identity, their relationships with men, what boundaries or rules they can break without consequence, and to receive an education.

For child brides, the whimsy of girlhood is non-existent because they enter womanhood before they fully grasp puberty. The US has relegated the creation and implementation of marriage laws to the state level. The age of majority is 18 in the US. Although the state law of Virginia or Alabama [AL code 30-1-4] allows for a 16-year-old to marry, majority of Americans as well as the international world, she is still a minor who cannot vote, buy alcohol, work after 8pm, and possibly carries a high school identification card. For the thousands of children—90% of whom are girls—this change comes too late.

Child marriage does not take place solely in poor communities. In Virginia, the new law arose when Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel learned that a high school student in an affluent Northern Virginia district dropped out of school when she married a man in his fifties. The marriage, granted by the parents, halted all child-protection services. It is illegal to engage in sexual activities with a minor yet marriage laws make allowances and create caveats for offenders to marry their victims, rather than facing justice for their illegal behavior. Jeanne Smoot of Tahirih Justice Center states that the “laws can facilitate forced marriages of children.”  It is to be understood that not all marriages are forced; however, who is standing up for the rights of the child to remain a child? The laws may not facilitate forced marriage of children, but they are failing to protect children from the threat of human trafficking, statutory rape, divorce, child abuse, domestic violence, poverty, mental health issues, premature death, and becoming a murderer.

Child marriage makes children targets because the authorities given agency to ensure their best interest aren’t always acting on the behalf of the child. Fraidy Reiss declares that children are not equipped to live and play in an adult world, considering the imbalance of power when married to an adult and lacking adequate resources to acquire help and freedom. Gerison Lansdown, Tony Waterson, and David Baum acknowledge that governments are failing to honor the four principles of the CRC as they relate to the world’s children, but also argue that lack of knowledge within civil society is not a valid excuse. “Ultimately the government is responsible for the full implementation of the convention” and everyone working with children need to do their part in helping to protect their rights (1565-6). Diana Francis identifies it as “people power.” People power is the decision to act at “any level…ensuring that those who have been the subjects of structures of domination discover and develop the power to participate in what affects them” (Francis, 2002). In other words, it is the voice of the collective speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves, in order to arrive at justice and democracy for all.

UN banner promoting the Sustainable Development Goals. Source: http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/gender-equality/
UN banner promoting the Sustainable Development Goals. Source: http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/gender-equality/

Ending child marriage around the world is an essential target in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls as a Sustainable Development Goal of the UN. The UN is responsible for global governance. It offers suggestions that may be refused if the country deems it is not in their best interest. Joel Oestreich says that despite being considered a Western ideal, countries have signed the CRC, recognizing it as a model of international consensus building and allowing UNICEF to work intra-nationally as well as internationally in order to provide the implantation of CRC standards as a way of life for the children (184). African nations have identified the necessity of bringing an end to child marriage; there needs to be long-term strategies, governmental infrastructure, and a responsible civil society working together to see an advancement. The same can be said of the United States. As a result of the Virginia legislation, bills are set to pass in California, New York, Maryland, and New Jersey. Nelson Mandela concluded that each of us as citizens, has a role to play in creating a better world for our children.

 

Works Cited:

Boothby, Neil, Alison Strang and Michael Wessells. A world turned upside down: Social Ecological Approaches to Children in War Zones. Connecticut: Kumarian Press, 2006. Print.

Francis, Diana. People, Peace and Power: Conflict Transformation Across Cultures. London: Pluto, 2002. Print.

Garbarino, James, Kathleen Kostelny and Nancy Dubrow. No place to be a Child: Growing Up in a War Zone. Massachusetts: Lexington, 1991. Print.

Goodhart, Michael. Human Rights: Politics and Practice. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2013. Print.

Additional Resources:

Callaway, Rhonda L. and Julie Harrelson-Stephens. Exploring International Human Rights: Critical Connection – Studies in Peace, Democracy, and Human Rights. Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 2007. Print.  

World Policy Forum

UNICEF Child Marriage

America’s Child Marriage Problem by NY Times

Child Marriage is an unseen problem in US by Boston Globe

Child Marriage Video

UNICEF Video

 

 

The Right to Menstrual Hygiene

a picture of three girls smiling
Jordanian School Girls. Source: David Stanley, Creative Commons

It probably goes without saying that periods are difficult to manage. They are painful, expensive, and often quite problematic for people who experience them.  We use resources such as pads, tampons, pain relievers, and bathrooms in an effort to manage menstruation. According to the WHO-UNICEF Joint Monitoring System, menstrual hygiene management (MHM) is when people with periods are able to use sanitary materials to absorb menstrual blood, change and dispose of these materials in privacy as needed, and have access to soap and water to keep clean.  For those of us who do have access to what we need to manage menstruation, it seems that we often take these things for granted. But what if someone doesn’t have these resources within reach? The bottom line is that a lack in opportunity to practice proper menstrual hygiene is a violation of human rights due to its negative impact on mental and physical health, access to education, and gender equality.

What Is the Problem?

The aspect of this issue that might be the easiest to recognize is the inaccessibility of products like sanitary pads and tampons. One study in Kaduna State, Nigeria reported that only 37% of women in their sample had all the products needed for proper menstruation management. In Uganda, 35% of women reported the same thing. This can partly be attributed to financial issues and the frequency at which the products must be purchased. Some products, such as menstrual cups or washable pads, can be washed and reused over an extended period of time, making them cheaper in the long run. However, they are initially far more expensive than the disposable options. They are simply outside of the budget for many people. Even when someone can afford to pay for the reusable materials, finding somewhere to purchase them may be a problem.

Issues of accessibility do not end with menstrual hygiene products. In many countries, schools lack proper sanitation facilities, like bathrooms, which are vital to being able to safely and comfortably replace and dispose of used menstrual products. This is seen in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where there is an average of 1.2 “toilets” per primary school. These “toilets” are actually pit latrines. They are not usually kept in good condition and rarely have sufficient waste disposal options. In situations like this, there is little to no access to a truly safe and private place to change menstrual materials.

a picture of a traditional pit latrine, which looks like a very small building with a tin roof and two tin doors
Traditional Pit Latrine. Source: SuSanA Secretariat, Creative Commons

Exacerbating this issue are the stigma and shame associated with menstruation. Around the world, girls are taught from a young age that having a period is something to hide and to be embarrassed of. In many countries, girls are even considered to be “dirty” when on their period. This can be seen in western Nepal, where there is a tradition called “chaupadi” which requires that girls and women stay outside throughout menstruation. If they enter a home, it is believed that all of the people and animals of the household will fall ill. This perspective puts both their mental and physical health at risk. Menstruation is frequently viewed as a taboo subject, so many girls are not taught anything about it before their first period. Even after they begin to experience menstruation, they do not have access to much knowledge of why it happens or what good menstrual hygiene management is.

It is also important to recognize the relationship between menstrual hygiene management and the transgender community. Menstruation is typically referred to as a strictly feminine issue, but that is simply not the case. Many transgender men and non-binary individuals experience periods, and they should be included in the conversation about menstruation. By failing to recognize their connection to menstruation, we fail to recognize the validity of their experiences and identities. This failure is a problem within itself, but it can also have repercussions on the mental health of transgender and non-binary individuals and their ability to access sanitary materials and bathrooms for menstrual hygiene management. We need to actively work towards being more inclusive with the language we use when discussion periods and related topics. This involves choosing gender neutral terms over gendered terms, such as choosing to say “menstrual hygiene products” rather than “feminine hygiene products”.

Why Does It Matter?

According to Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, every individual has “a right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being” of themselves. When you are told that one of the basic biological processes that you experience and cannot control is shameful, it has the potential to lower the value that you see in yourself. Combined with the common lack in understanding of menstruation, this can lead to significant amounts of fear and confusion and have a considerable negative impact on mental health. Article 26 dictates that everyone has a right to education. Without access to clean menstrual management products or places to change and dispose of used ones, many girls around the world miss school during menstruation to try to keep it hidden. Some girls do not even have the option to go to school during that time. This creates a disparity between the educational and career opportunities of men and women, violating Article 2 of the declaration, which says that everyone is entitled to their rights without discrimination based on distinctions like one’s sex. It is unacceptable to allow limitations to be placed on individuals’ access to their human rights based on something that is uncontrollable. In order for things to change, individuals must take action.

What Can We Do?

Part of the reason why access to menstrual management products is such a difficult issue to deal with is that the majority of people are not comfortable talking about it. Even in the United States, where we generally have access to education about the most basic aspects of menstruation and know that it is normal and healthy, there seems to be some sort of collective, irrational fear surrounding the topic. Periods have a direct impact on half of the world’s population and an indirect impact on all of the population. We cannot continue trying to pretend that the obstructions of human rights that are caused by poor menstrual hygiene management do not exist. Conversations about menstruation might be uncomfortable at first, but they are absolutely necessary. uncomfortable at first, but they are absolutely necessary.

Many organizations have begun working towards improving MHM worldwide. AFRIpads, for example, works to provide menstrual kits with reusable sanitary pads and storage bags to women and girls throughout Africa, while creating job opportunities within the organization for women in Uganda. They also collaborate with Lunapads in a program called One4Her. For each eligible product that is purchased from Lunapads, an AFRIpad is donated to a student in need. On UAB’s campus, we have access to a chapter of Period: The Menstrual Movement, an organization that is dedicated to improving access to menstrual hygiene products for homeless women in the United States. If you are interested in taking action, the group is currently hosting a donation drive for pads and tampons through October 31. You can find donation boxes by the elevators in any of the residence halls. They are also hosting a Period Packaging event at the Spencer’s Honors House from 6:30pm to 8:30pm on November 1, where people will come together and pack menstrual hygiene products in kits to be given to those in need. Additionally, the Blazer Kitchen is hosting a toiletry drive through October 30, to which you can donate menstrual hygiene products, as well as many other non-perishable items.

If you lack the resources to financially support the improvement of MHM, do not be afraid to speak up and get involved in the conversation. Be a part of spreading awareness and breaking the stigma surrounding periods.

 

Mexico’s Interrogation Secrets Revealed

Barbwire fence. Source: Edmund Garman, Creative Commons
Barbwire fence. Source: Edmund Garman, Creative Commons

Cruel and unusual punishment is a human rights issue we don’t hear enough about. It is illegal according to our US Constitution and the Eighth Amendment and a grave human rights violation according to international treaties and documents. For example, Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”  The Convention on the Protection of against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman Treatment or Punishment describes what actions constitute to be labeled as torture, the government and law enforcement’s responsibility to prohibit the use of torture or inhuman treatment through training and a concern for law and order, and the rights a person has if they were to be tortured by the state.

Imagine that you are being detained and questioned because it is believed that you may be involved in illegal drug activity. Your questioning consists of electro-shock, beatings, rape, and other forms of sexual assault. Would you consider that cruel and unusual punishment? Most would think so. Sadly, it is not unusual in many countries around the world. Mexico is only one case study.

Amnesty International reports that the government of Mexico is currently committing  torturous acts on women who have been accused of participating in illegal drug activity or organized crime. There are at least one hundred women who have come forward and spoken about their experienced abuse by law enforcement at every level: local, state, and federal- including the Army and Navy.  Each of these women have reported experiencing some kind of torture whether that be psychological abuse, sexual abuse, or both (usually both). It was reported that seventy-two women were “sexually abused during or hours after their arrest.” Thirty-three of those women stated that they were raped.

Mexican woman selling crafts. Source: Frank_am_Main, Creative Commons
Mexican woman selling crafts. Source: Frank_am_Main, Creative Commons

In 2013, Mónica was 26 when she was “gang raped by six municipal police officers, received electro-shock to her genitals, was suffocated with a plastic bag, was dragged across the floor by her hair, and had her head plunged into a bucket of water in the city of Torreón, where she also witnessed the torturous death of her husband.” She watched as her husband was being  tortured by “beatings with metal studded whips and the skin on his legs being peeled off with a knife…” When the couple and Mónica’s brother were being transported to the Attorney General’s office, she watched her husband take his last breath of life. She was later flown to Mexico City and taken to the Deputy Attorney General on Organized Crime. Mónica told Amnesty International that she was forced to “sign a confession stating that she was a part of a drug cartel,” notwithstanding the fact that it is a non-admissible confession in court if torture was involved according to Mexican law.

Torture and harsh interrogation tactics are common practice in Mexico’s investigations of drug-related organized crime.

Why did she receive such despicable treatment? I think the police of Mexico are trying to send the message that they are actively pursuing the drug trafficking problem the country faces. They are using women like Mónica who are of lower socioeconomic status because they are perceived as the “weakest link in the trafficking chain and are seen as ‘easy targets’ to arrest.” These women also are more susceptible to not being able to pay for even a halfway decent defense attorney. This means that not only are they vulnerable to arrest, but also vulnerable to police brutality.  This isn’t the first time Mexico has been “caught in the act” of committing illegal arrests and mistreating those who are arrested. In fact, Amnesty International reported that since 1991 there have been thousands of complaints associated with the ill-treatment and torture of those who have been arrested, yet only fifteen of these cases resulted in federal criminal convictions, including the case of General Manuel de Jesus Moreno Aviña.

Back in 2008, the Mexican Army took on an immense responsibility to put a stop to organized crime and drug cartel activity. General Aviña was accused of torturing and murdering José Heriberto Rojas Lemus. Lemus “was tortured within the Ojinaga military garrison where he was strapped to a post and soaked with water before he was given electric shocks for hours.” The court sentence read that it’s possible Lemus died from multiple cardiac arrests due to the shocks, yet the military doctor was ordered to write on the death certificate that Lemus overdosed. Another case involves a video that has surfaced of a woman being tortured by a female federal officer and two army soldiers through suffocation. The Department of Defense has stated that “these events occurred on February 4, 2015 in Ajuchitan, a small mountain town in southern Guerrero state.” The Mexican army has announced that the two soldiers involved are currently in a military prison awaiting trial, but there has been no word on whether the federal officer will face charges or not. What is different about these cases is that since they involved military personnel, the military justice system took control. As Raul Benitez, a security specialist and political science professor, explains it, “the military justice system tends to be very strict in such cases, because (the soldiers in the video) are casting the institution in a bad light.” Civilian prosecutors aren’t so swift in taking these cases on.

Source: Zachary Perlinski, Creative Commons
Source: Zachary Perlinski, Creative Commons

So, if cases of torture like these were investigated, why are a significant majority of them not? The torture case that occurred in Ajuchitan in 2015 is considered “special” because it was easy to investigate due to the fact that all the evidence needed is in a video rather than just simply accusations of torture coming from prisoners. Torture and harsh interrogations are prevalent in Mexico’s investigations. Mexico has signed and ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and  supported other human rights documents dealing with torture and arbitrary arrest and is thus in violation of these international human rights treaties. The reports are out from Amnesty International, as well as other human rights organizations, but reports are the only way thus far that Mexico can be held accountable globally. So my question is: what do we do now?

Mexico is breaking its obligations under international law by illegally detaining and torturing people. 

Mexico wants to give the appearance that they are in compliance with international law as they pursue and prosecute organized crime/ drug cartel activity that has plagued the country for years. However, when reports and videos surface that show exactly who they are harassing, arresting, detaining, and torturing Mexico was hard pressed to justify its actions. In my opinion, they don’t want to go after the real gangs and drug lords because money talks. Corruption is widespread –  in fact, drug cartels paid around $100 million A MONTH to police officers nationwide to turn their heads they other way. Part of the problem is the very low pay of police officers (just over 20 percent earns less than 1,000 pesos ($79) a month, while 60.9 percent earns no more than 4,000 pesos ($317) monthly. To fulfill its obligations towards the U.S. and expectations by the international community, Mexican authorities often target women and men of lower economic status who don’t have the funds to pay bribes to law enforcement officials or the network to be kept out of jail. This begins the cycle of violence described above, which will be very hard to break as long as corruption within Mexico’s federal, state, and local governments continues.  Fundamental reform of Mexico’s militarized police force, law enforcement, and the judicial system as well changes on socio-economic policy are needed to end unrest and diminish the power of organized crime and drug cartels.