The union of two people is often a joyous occasion that celebrates love, families coming together and visions of a prosperous future. Whether it’s walking down the aisle, breaking glass, standing under a mandap, jumping over a broom or performing a tea ceremony, a wedding is a memorable event that marks a fresh start in the rest of your life.
However, joy cannot be found in a ceremony based on crushing someone’s civil liberties. For some women, the idea of marriage does not inspire the image of white dresses and champagne toasts, rather it inspires fear of decisions being made about their lives and bodies that they do not have the freedom to challenge. .
Marriage practices and traditions that were devised decades, if not centuries ago, and which undermine women’s basic human rights are still practiced today. These practices limit women’s freedoms and create a significant obstacle on the path to achieving gender equality.
While there is always room to recognize and respect tradition, and to protect indigenous cultures from being diluted by globalization, there should be no such space when these traditions are used to disempower women and girls.
Although steps have been taken to end these harmful practices, much more needs to be done to ensure that the future of girls is not decided for them by the threat of marriage and the cultural practices that result from it. ensue, and that women enjoy the freedoms they deserve, whether or not they decide to marry.
Here are some existing marriage customs that are detrimental to the rights of women and girls.
1. Bride kidnapping
Abducting a woman with the intention of forcing her into marriage is a practice that continues in some parts of the world. It exists in East and Central Asia, as well as parts of Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. Bride kidnapping undermines a woman’s will to decide her own future.
A world-famous country for the practice is Kyrgyzstan, where the practice sees a woman abducted by a man’s friends in public and taken to his home, where she is convinced to marry him by his family members. The tradition, called “ala kachuu”, has been illegal since 1994, but is still practiced to this day. Looking at the tradition today, Kyrgyz women interviewed by The Conversation believe it is a thing of the past and participate in the staged kidnapping, to maintain the tradition. Not all ongoing kidnappings are staged, however, and as recently as 2018 two women lost their lives after opposing marriage over the practice of kidnapping.
Marriage kidnapping also perpetuates gender-based violence, where in some cases women and girls are raped in an attempt to coerce them into marriage. That wouldn’t be the norm in Kyrgyzstan, but in places like South Africa and Indonesia, the tradition sometimes involves violent actions and no space for negotiation.
Both Indonesia and South Africa have sought to abolish the tradition, but it is still ongoing. Italy, Kenya, Rwanda and parts of Latin America are other countries where bride kidnapping exists.
2. Child marriage
There is no shortage of information about the damage child marriage can cause to young girls and the society around them. It robs them of their childhood, robs them of a future they have chosen, limits their access to education, potentially exposes them to gender-based violence and continues to fuel the fire of gender inequality.
Some of the main reasons for child marriage include marriage out of poverty or to provide financial security, severe regional gender inequalities, and adherence to social or ethnic norms. While the highest rates of child marriage are found in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, the practice is practiced on almost every continent and in many parts of the world. It’s illegal in much of the world, but marriages continue despite loopholes, for example in the UK, and problems with law enforcement.
You can read more about child marriage and why it needs to end in our explainer here.
3. Dowry payments
Dowry is entrenched in some cultures and societies, and not all of them are harmful to women. A dowry in most cultures, such as those in sub-Saharan Africa, is a symbol of unity and respect for the family to whom it is paid. These are not always financial payments, nor are they always seen as paying for marriage to a woman in some cultures. They can include token contributions to the family as a sign of gratitude for their acceptance.
However, this is not a simple custom, and the payment of dowry in some communities has resulted in women being harmed. In India, where a dowry of money or other property is paid by parents to the groom’s family to provide financial security for their daughter in her marriage, dowries have led to gender-based violence and even death. In 2019, dowries resulted in the deaths of more than 3,500 women in the country, and courts see thousands of cases of dowry-related harassment or gender-based violence each year.
According to CNN, dowry-related abuse of women in the country is often caused by dissatisfaction with the amount of dowry received, as it is more of a condition of marriage than a gift. Women have been known to commit suicide, driven by the pressure of not being able to pay dowry, or they face violence within their marriage, or are murdered for the same reason.
Although India has banned the tradition, not enough has yet been done to protect women and their families from the pressures of the dowry system.
Millions of girls around the world undergo female genital mutilation (FGM) as a precondition for marriage or as a way to control a woman’s sexuality before marriage. It is a violation of a woman’s right to bodily autonomy and, as it is often practiced on girls of school age, also prevents them from accessing education and robs them of their childhood, while causing long-term health consequences.
Often, FGM is linked to child marriage, as the custom is practiced while girls are still young so that they can be seen by society as suitable for marriage. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), in some communities where women are financially dependent on men, FGM is a requirement before marriage and is practiced to improve inheritance chances and financial stability.
Today, the practice continues all over the world and occurs legally and illegally in some countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and South America. It is also present in Western countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United States, United Kingdom and parts of Europe among immigrant or diaspora populations who have perpetuated the tradition.