Gender inequality

To end child marriage, we must weed out its root causes

In Short

As funders rooted in Jewish values, we are called to work for change. While Judaism has a complex history around early and child marriage, in contemporary times we hold that marriage requires a woman’s full consent.

Sonali Khatun was just 14 years old when her parents forced her to abandon her studies and marry a man she had never met. Any dreams she had for her future vanished that afternoon in her small village in West Bengal, India.   

Over the years, we have met many Sonalis. And in our work alongside grassroots groups in India, Kenya and the Dominican Republic, we’ve seen how this phenomenon cuts across cultures, religions and ethnic groups. At least 12 million girls globally are married off each year before they turn 18. Nearly half of all young brides around the world live in South Asia and one-third of them live in India – this, despite longstanding laws setting the minimum age for marriage for girls at 18-years old.   

While age-based marriage legislation can be a starting point, it alone will not fix this problem (and sometimes drives the practice underground). The deep-seated social norms that rob girls of their autonomy don’t disappear at age 18. This Women’s History Month let’s harness the momentum behind all the feminist convenings and celebratory headlines to move beyond a fixation on age. Instead, we must invest in local feminist organizations working to transform the social norms that drive child marriage. These organizations foster agency in girls, nurture their aspirations and provide resources like education, health services and jobs. By supporting this work, not only are more girls given the freedom to choose whether to marry, but the power to transform their own lives.   

At its core, child marriage is a byproduct of gender inequality. In fact, eliminating child marriage is a target under the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goal to achieve gender equality by 2030. This practice is also deeply intertwined with other social issues; the risk of adolescent pregnancy and lack of education and job opportunities make girls more vulnerable. And compared to their peers, we also know that girls and young women forced to marry early face increased pressure to drop out of school and are more likely to experience violence, live in poverty or die during childbirth.   

The pandemic further exacerbated these outcomes. An additional 10 million girls are at risk of entering child marriages, as families living in poverty magnified by the pandemic see these unions as the only viable option to securing financial security for their daughters.  

As funders rooted in Jewish values, we are called to work for change. While Judaism has a complex history around early and child marriage, in contemporary times we hold that marriage requires a woman’s full consent. The ability to consent requires those making a choice to have what our sacred texts refer to as da’at. This abstract Hebrew word holds many shades of meaning related to both knowledge and intent. In its fullest sense, da’at refers to self-knowledge and agency: truly knowing who you are, what you want and having the autonomy to act and make choices based on that knowledge. Deciding if, when and whom to marry is one of those choices.  

The road ahead is daunting. However, we’ve already seen that real change is possible. In Delhi, India, for example, the Azad Foundation brings girls together into collectives to talk about taboo topics – like sexism, patriarchy, inequality. They learn that the limitations placed on their lives are man-made, that there are ways to take control of their futures. The organization even offers opportunities for them to do just that. Their “Women on Wheels” project trains low-income young women to become taxi drivers in an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry. This project not only helps young women develop new aspirations for their lives but shifts family and community beliefs about what girls can do if given the opportunity. 

We realize however that girls’ aspirations cannot be realized without the availability and proper access to support services. That is why we help grow local organizations like the Nyanza Initiative for Girls’ Education & Empowerment (NIGEE) in southwest Kenya. In Nyanza province, one in three girls is married off before turning 18. NIGEE provides vocational training, counseling and other resources to girls who leave school due to early, forced marriages and unplanned pregnancies. They have trained hundreds of young women in computers, hairdressing, videography and more so they can start their own businesses and gain a pathway to economic freedom. 

The future holds more promise for Sonali as well. Despite the stigma and taunting from villagers, she divorced her abusive husband and found refuge in a local women’s organization called MBBCDS, where she learned leadership skills. Not only did she return to school, but she began working at MBBCDS teaching other young girls how to stand up for themselves.  

We firmly believe that all human beings are created b’tzelem Elohim — in the Divine image — and as such, we are all infinitely valuable and deserving of dignity and respect. We see our work supporting local feminist organizations that help girls develop autonomy as an extension of this tenet. While funders often face pressure to show results based on marriages delayed after age 18, effecting meaningful change means addressing the factors driving early marriages. Patriarchal social structures, gender-based violence, poverty and lack of access to education and healthcare remain stubborn impediments. Though restrictive gender norms have deep, entrenched roots, we must keep fighting for girls like Sonali. If left unchecked, these roots will continue to strangle the futures of millions of girls worldwide. 

Rabbi Elizabeth Richman is the associate director for Jewish engagement and advocacy at American Jewish World Service (AJWS). Sarah Green is the senior policy advisor for sexual health and rights at AJWS..