Taking choice seriously: understandings of decision-making about child marriage

 by Esther Miedema, Winny Koster and Nicky Pouw

-Progress in Development Studies

Young women’s health and educational attainment is broadly seen as fundamental to sustainable development and economic progress. In recent years, the international development community has directed particular attention to the practice of ‘child marriage,’ defined as that which takes place before one or both spouses have reached the age of 18.

A central premise of many campaigns and interventions against child marriage is that the young people involved are coerced into marrying, and that marriage generally comes at a severe cost to young people’s physical and mental wellbeing, their educational attainment and ability to break cycles of poverty.

Child marriage has been found to disproportionately affect young women in the Global South. In International development circles, young women exercising their right to refuse an early marriage is often regarded as an indication of their empowerment, their ‘no’ a cause for celebration. By the same token, young women who agree to a marriage or choose to marry before the age of 18 are regarded as ‘vulnerable’ and not having had a choice. Consequently, resolving the issue of child marriage is commonly framed in terms of ‘empowering’ girls, and teaching girls, families and communities about the negative consequences of child marriage.   

This Special Issue (SI) seeks to contribute to debates on child marriage by offering a grounded understanding of the rationales underpinning such marriages in a range of contexts in the Global South. In so doing, we recognize that funding schemes and growing demands to demonstrate impact do not sit comfortably with emphases on nuance and context that often characterizes academic research. However, by shedding light on the complexity of structural drivers of child marriage and by complicating simplified conceptions of choice, we hope to elicit discussion on the limitations of focusing only on girls and families as sites of intervention, and of programmatic emphases on individual choice and countering harmful ‘traditions’. Finally, in different ways, the various contributions highlight the importance of moving beyond the view of child marriage as always and unvaryingly harmful, thereby supporting calls for more research and interventions that do justice to young women and families’ choices.

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