The union of two people is often a joyous occasion that celebrates love, families coming together, and visions of a prosperous future. Whether it involves walking down the aisle, breaking glass, standing beneath a mandap, jumping over a broom, or performing a tea ceremony, a wedding is a memorable event that marks a new beginning into the rest of your life.
However, joy cannot be found in a ceremony that is 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, it rather incites fear of decisions made upon their lives and their bodies that they have no liberty to argue against.
Marriage practices and traditions that were designed decades, even centuries ago, that infringe upon women’s basic human rights are still being performed today. These practices limit women’s freedoms and create a significant hurdle on the track towards achieving gender equality.
While there is always space 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 there have been moves towards ending these harmful practices, more needs to be done to make sure that girls do not have their futures decided for them by the threat of marriage and the cultural practices it may come with, and that women are provided the freedoms they deserve, whether or not they decide to marry.
Here are some existing marriage customs that are harmful to the rights of women and girls.
1. Bride Kidnapping
Abducting a woman with the intention to force them into marriage is a practice that continues in some regions around the world. It exists in East and Central Asia, as well as in some parts of Europe, and sub-Saharan Africa. Bride kidnapping infringes upon a woman's will to decide on her own future.
A country that is known globally for this 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, however it is still practiced to this day. Looking at the tradition today, Kyrgyz women interviewed by the Conversation believe it to be a thing of the past, and partake in staging the kidnapping, to uphold tradition. However not all the ongoing abductions are staged, and as recently as 2018, two women lost their lives after opposing marriage following the abduction practice.
Marriage abduction also perpetuates gender-based violence, where in some cases, women and girls are raped in an attempt to coerce them to marry. This is reportedly not the norm in Kyrgyzstan, but in places like South Africa and Indonesia, the tradition sometimes involves violent action, and no space for negotiation.
Both Indonesia and South Africa have been aiming to abolish the tradition, however it is still ongoing. Other nations where bride kidnapping exists include Italy, Kenya, Rwanda, and parts of Latin America.
2. Child Marriage
There is no shortage of information out there on the harm that child marriage can cause to young girls and the society around them. It robs them of their childhood, denies them of a future chosen by them, 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 marrying out of poverty or to ensure financial security, severe regional gender inequality, and fulfilling social or ethnic norms. While the highest rates of child marriage can be found in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, this practice is undertaken on almost every continent and in many regions globally. It is illegal in much of the world, but marriages still continue amid legal loopholes, for example in the UK, and issues in terms of actually policing laws.
You can read more about child marriage and why it needs to come to an end in our explainer here.
3. Dowry Payments
Dowries are ingrained 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 that it is being paid to. They are not always financial payments, and are also not always seen as paying a price for marrying a woman in certain cultures. They can include symbolic contributions to the family as a sign of gratitude for their acceptance.
However, it is not a straightforward custom, and dowry payments in some communities have resulted in women facing harm. In India, where a dowry of money or other goods is paid by parents to the groom’s family to ensure their daughter has financial security in her marriage, dowries have resulted in gender-based violence, and even death. In 2019, dowries resulted in the deaths of over 3,500 women in the country, and the courts see thousands of dowry-related harassment or gender-based violence cases every year.
According to CNN, dowry-related woman abuse in the country is often caused by dissatisfaction over the amount of dowry received, as it has become more of a condition of marriage, rather than a gift. Women are known to commit suicide, driven by the pressure of not being able to keep up with dowry payments, or they face violence within their marriage, or are murdered for the same reason.
While 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 experience female genital mutilation (FGM) as a prerequisite to marriage or as a means to control a woman’s sexuality before marriage. This is an infringement on a woman’s right to her bodily autonomy, and as it is often performed on school-aged girls, also stops them from being able to access education and deprives them of their childhood, as well as causing both short- and long-term health consequences.
Often FGM is interlinked with child marriage, as the custom is practiced while girls are still young so that they can be viewed to society as suitable to marry. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), in some communities where women are financially dependent on men, FGM is a requirement ahead of marriage and is practiced to better the chances of inheritance and financial stability.
Today the practice is ongoing all over the world, and occurs legally and illegally in some African, Asian, Middle Eastern, Eastern European, and Southern American countries. It is also present in western countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the US, the UK, and parts of Europe among immigrant or diaspora populations that have continued the tradition.