This is the first of a two part response to Elaine Dalton’s recent BYU Devotional speech.
Globally, early marriage is inextricably linked to development and human rights concerns. I believe that the words of a general officer of our worldwide church should be considered from a worldwide perspective. In this light, some of her conclusions are troubling.
A few facts about some of the places in the world the church is growing:
Percent of girls marrying before age 18:
- South Asia 48%
- Bangladesh 27.3% (before age 15)
- Africa 42%
- Kazakhstan 14.4%
Even within the U.S. church, there are troubling examples that I’ve witnessed firsthand of seventeen year old girls, still in high school, getting married.
- A seventeen-year-old girl married her returned missionary boyfriend in the temple. A few months later he called the high school to excuse her when she was sick and they insisted they needed to talk to a parent (clearly someone at the high school did not know that this is not legally necessary once the child is married in Utah). This happened in the last 10 years in the SLC metropolitan area. Her parents urged the marriage because they worried that she and her twenty-something boyfriend would otherwise break the Law of Chastity.
- A young Mormon Arizona couple, again the bride was seventeen, had to call home before boarding a cruise ship to their honeymoon because she was underage. Again, the couple was urged to marry because it was better than, “living in sin.”
While marriage at age 17 is not the norm in the church, I imagine it could be (or younger) in parts of developing world where the church is growing quickly. And while Sister Dalton would likely deny that she is advocating child marriage, the impact of her words could encourage girls to dismiss the concerns of their parents and marry too young, or encourage parents to push early marriage. In some cases, her words could encourage parents to allow underage marriage. It behooves us to realize that this practice is not only unwise, it actually violates international human right norms.
Child marriage occurs when one or both of the spouses are below the age of 18. Child marriage is a violation of Article 16(2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The 2012 UNFPA report Marrying Too Young, End Child Marriage points out that, “Many girls, for example, may have little understanding of or exposure to other life options. They may “willingly” accept marriage as their allotted fate.” When girls think their virtue is so important that they are getting married at age 17 so as to protect it, we have a problem. When girls are taught that it would be better to marry at 17, 18, or 19 (or younger) instead of losing an intact hymen, that is coercion. They feel, in fact, they have no other options. Their human rights are being violated.
There are sure to be readers who feel this talk does not apply globally (although I’m not sure why not), therefore it’s ok for President Dalton to promote early marriage in Utah where the average age of first marriage is 21.9 for women and 23.9 for men. Note that the U.S. national average is 28.9 for men and 26.9 for women, and that Utah has the lowest marrying age in the country. But President Dalton wasn’t speaking just in Utah, she was speaking at BYU—where the World is Your Campus. Last month I heard of a young African student in his mid twenties preparing for study at a BYU campus. His fiancée would remain home in Africa while she finished high school and then they would marry when he returned and she was 17. Nearly half of all African women marry before they are 18. This talk would, and indeed I’m sure has, reinforced dangerous cultural norms not only in the U.S. church (it’s better to just hurry up and get married rather than have sex) but within the global church. Members from developing countries who study at the university and Americans who develop foundations from talks like President Dalton’s will carry her words with them abroad, with the stamp of God added to ideas that disadvantage women the world over; the idea that women can’t be too young to marry, that education for women isn’t that important, but that their virginity is.
I’m not sure what church demographics will look like in 30 years, especially in places like India where the church enjoys robust growth and where 47% of girls are married before age 18 and 18% before age 15, but I do know this:
For the period 2000-2011, just over one third (an estimated 34 per cent) of women aged 20 to 24 years in developing regions were married or in union before their eighteenth birthday. In 2010 this was equivalent to almost 67 million women. About 12 per cent of them were married or in union before age 15…
By 2030, the number of child brides marrying each year will have grown from 14.2 in 2010 to 15.1 million, that is over 14 per cent if current trends continue.
It’s not just early marriage that is the problem. A top predictor of economic development the world over, and especially acute in developing countries, is the education level and number of women in the workforce. While it’s true that globally women and girls marry young because of poverty, marrying young coupled with scripted gender roles prolong the poverty cycle. Lack of education leads to lack of personal and familial economic development, which leads to early and frequent childbearing, which leads to more poverty and more lack of opportunities, high malnutrition, high infant mortality and high maternal mortality. We live in a world where currently 15 million children die of hunger every year. We live in a reality where encouraging early marriage and scripted gender roles will keep the world underdeveloped and women and children especially impoverished. As followers of Christ, we aren’t supposed to create poverty, we’re supposed to alleviate it.
Alleviating poverty, especially in the developing countries, takes a multi-tiered approach—an approach that has everything to do with human rights, and everything to do with women getting them. Including lobbying. Stay tuned for part II.
1) There are simple things the church can do to send a message that indeed, there is such a thing as too young, like banning temple marriage before 18 to be in compliance with the Declaration of Human Rights.
2) I’m sure many readers entered into early marriage and are happy. I’m glad this works for them. However it is irrelevant to the post which does not intend to correlate marital satisfaction and age of marriage, but instead correlates cultural coercion and economic outcomes with age of marriage. Please keep that in mind before posting comments about how happy you are after marrying young.