Paper presented at the 14th Eurasian Conference on Language and Social Sciences (P 229-246)

Hosted by University of Gjakova‘Fehmi Agani, KOSOVO 

Feminisation of Poverty:
The Cause and Consequences of Early Childhood Marriages in Iran

Kameel Ahmady

Social Anthropologist, University of Kent, MA in Social Anthropology

Abstract

Many scholars, studying multiple countries, have found that, overall, women are more likely than their male counterparts to be poor (Findlay & Wright, 1996).  This article analyses the primary and most consistent findings that emerge from this body of comprehensive research to increase knowledge about the underlying causes of child marriage.  Iran is used as a case example, because it is characterised to a large extent by child marriage.  This article is, in part, an extract from the author’s book, An Echo of Silence:  A comprehensive study on child marriage in Iran.

It defines the phenomenon of early child marriage and analyses the various underlying drivers and the consequences of it.  The research clearly shows that early child marriage is an obstacle to women’s empowerment in Iran.  It also finds that poverty is inextricably linked to the prevalence of child marriage in Iran.

The existence and rise of child marriage is a complex and growing narrative.  Further research is necessary to diagnose and combat this insidious and deeply embedded practice.

This article discusses, within Iran’s context, the prevalence of early child marriage in the country and statistical information about the rate of early child marriage and the rate of divorce under the age of 18.  It further shows that poverty is the most frequent reason for early child marriage and a frequent consequence of it, as well.  Finally, it gives recommendations for reducing the practice.

 

Keywords:  early child marriages, Iran, culture, Islam, poverty, feminism

Introduction

Poverty is one of the major contributing factors to early child marriage (‘ECM’) in countries and regions where it is prevalent.  The economic aspects of ECM play a dominant role, particularly in countries/regions where girls are often considered to be burdens on families’ sparse or limited resources.  In this context, a family’s limited resources and the prospect of obtaining a guarantee against poverty overrides any concern for the young girl, who often is given to an elderly or much older man as a strategy for survival.

In the eyes of many, ECM affects and complicates young children’s lives, causes harmful consequences to their health and affects their future development on every level.  In some developing countries, ECM is an economic tool that can improve the economic status of the family.  It can fortify bonds between families, is seen to ensure a girl’s virginity before marriage and control her sexual desire, and avoids the possibility of a girl reaching an age where she is no longer desirable as a wife by a man or his family (Alemu, 2008).  Complications related to pregnancy and childbirth are the main causes of death among 15–19-year-old girls (Loaiza and Wong, 2012).  Equally devastating are the health consequences that make girls prone to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.  From a social perspective, it is a brutal end to a girl’s education and autonomy and minimises her life choices.  Girls are reduced to mere commercial commodities.

There is no doubt that investing in girls, developing their social and economic assets and ensuring their access to education and health services are clear signs of gender equality that will translate into stronger societies and vibrant economies.

Education is often seen as a key to preventing ECM (UNICEF, 2004).  Women who are educated are healthier, participate more in the formal labour market, earn more income, have fewer children, and provide better healthcare and education to their children, compared to women with little or no formal education (UNICEF, 2001).

With worldwide awareness and advocacy, levels of ECM are generally declining, although a substantial proportion of young children are still married under the legal ages of their societies.  One clear, egregious example of this is Iran.

 

Iran:  Situational Analysis and Strategic Context

According to the Iranian religious structure, puberty and menarche are the transitional points from childhood to adulthood.  Reaching this biological threshold means becoming eligible for marriage, regardless of age.  Although ECM is applicable to both boys and girls, the harsh reality is that the impact is greater on girls.  It is a global issue, but rates vary dramatically, both within and between countries.  Nevertheless, in terms of proportions and numbers, most ECM takes place in rural sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia (UNICEF 2001).

Although little data is available on ECM in Iran and there is an absence of credible and independent studies, official Iranian Government statistics show that tens of thousands of girls and boys under the age of 15 are married off by their families each year in Iran.  The numbers may actually be even higher.  Some families in Iran do not register underage marriages.  According to Iran’s Association of Children’s Rights, the number of girls married in Iran under the age of 15 went from 33,383 in 2006 to 43,459 in 2009, a 30% increase in three years. This is due to cultural norms and local customs, deepening poverty and parents’ desires to control their daughters’ sexualities.

According to the report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, the legal age of marriage for girls in Iran is 13 years of age, but girls as young as nine may be married with the permission of the court.  In 2013, a legislative attempt to declare the marriage of a custodian to his adopted daughter illegal was voided by the Council.  The amended text of the relevant law now in effect recognises the legitimacy of such a marriage, provided that a competent court considers it to be in the best interests of the child.  At least 48,580 girls between 10 and 14 years of age were married in 2011, 48,567 of whom were reported to have had at least one child before they reached 15 years of age.

Some 40,635 marriages of girls less than 15 years of age were also registered between March 2012 and March 2013, of which more than 8,000 involved men who were at least ten years older.  Furthermore, at least 1,537 marriages of girls younger than ten were registered in 2012, which is a significant increase compared to the 716 registered between March 2010 and March 2011.  The number of registered divorces for girls under 15 years of age has also consistently increased since 2010.  The Government responded to this by stating that the law prohibits forced marriage, implying that all marriages in the country are consensual.

Statistics in Iran from the past five years show a significant drop in the number of students enrolled in (all-girl) schools.  For the past five years, an increasing number of girls’ schools have been experiencing a significant drop in the number of students enrolled (ThoughtCo).  Furthermore, the mortality rate for married girls below the age of 15 is five times higher than for those over the age of 20 (ThoughtCo).

This study aims to analyse, for the first time, the prevalence of ECM in Iran by focusing on the prominent socio-cultural factors behind the deep-rooted inequality that is responsible for ECM’s continued existence and support.  The rationale for this study is to demonstrate the evidence for and prevalence of this harmful practice in Iran and to assist decision-makers in sharpening their focuses on the urgent need to protect girls’ human rights.  Respect for girls’ human rights requires that we prevent and eradicate ECM and actively support those girls who are already married.  It is the only course by which we can avert what otherwise is a human tragedy.  This study is an effort to bring to the surface the problem of ECM in Iran.

Research Background and Objectives

This study on the prevalence of ECM in Iran initially occurred in 2013, when Kameel Ahmady conducted the first large-scale survey on female genital mutilation (‘FGM’) in Iran (Ahmady, 2015).

In most of the areas studied, ECM was found to be on par with FGM.  This current survey on ECM was conceived when the study on FGM was proceeding.  At that time, the international community was unaware of FGM’s existence in Iran.  Even within Iran, Iranians were unaware of FGM’s existence.  Partly due to the study on FGM, it became abundantly that clear that a study was warranted to gauge the consequences of ECM.

In Iran there has been a meagre pool of information on this subject.  Very few individuals have conducted studies to try to identify the depth and prevalence of the problem.  Government data is lacking.  Iran, with its considerably high rate of practise of this gender-based social norm has never been the subject of any sort in-depth research.  While some descriptive statistics provide a global picture of ECM, they do not provide an analysis of the variables that determine a girl’s risk of being married as a child.  What little has been mentioned is superficial, confined to university theses, the media, internet activism reports and some reports of a non-analytical nature regarding the registered rates of ECM.

In most cases, studies of ECM in Iran have gone no further than local, micro-level analyses.  What was sorely needed was a practical, problem-centred and issue-orientated piece of research based specifically on Iran and ECM’s prevalence.  Looking at the history of ECM research in Iran, what became abundantly clear was the absence of an in-depth approach to bringing ECM issues to the surface and going beyond what has been occasionally done in this field.

From the outset it was quite difficult to get accurate data on the true extent of ECM.  That is because some marriages are not officially registered and many parents resort to lying about girls’ ages.  In rural areas this lack of official registration is made easier by virtue of the fact that birth certificates are often non-existent or not properly recorded.  Therefore, ECM is not under the legal scrutiny of the courts; thus girls are denied the benefit of a measure to safeguard their interests (UNICEF, 2014, p.1).  Moreover, not registering a marriage can lead to a lack of legal protection for both spouses and any future children (Amani Campaign, 2014, p.12).

Objectives of the Research Study

As mentioned above, Iran is a country where ECM is taking place in abundance.  Some of these marriages are arranged to settle financial debts or for other materialistic reasons.  Most of them are unregistered, which is a contributing factor to the scarcity of data on the topic.  Due to that lack of data, it is easy for the authorities and the people involved to deny the facts about the prevalence of ECM in Iran.  This study has explored the hidden to reveal the existence of ECM in Iran.  This is the first and only comprehensive study to date in Iran that brings to the surface the unregistered number of marriages that take place at early ages.

The objective of this study is to present empirical evidence obtained through household questionnaires to estimate the prevalence of ECM in Iran and to identify and understand the factors associated with it.

Research Methodology

The methodological approach adopted by this research was designed to be qualitative and large scale.  As no previous research was available to refer to and no known methodology had been implemented in Iran that could be used as a comparative, a research methodology compatible with the subject matter was absent.  This clearly pointed to the need for a comparative study of the different states that have a high prevalence of ECM in Iran, which would help identify the similarities and differences between the drivers that led different people into ECMs.  The genuineness of the research and its novelty of scale and purpose determined the steps and forms of each method.

Considering the fact that hardly any research had been undertaken in this field, the task was highly challenging and the methodology evolved was dynamic.  Methodological decisions were completely flexible, depending on the variations that the researchers faced at each step.  Population size, sample size, sampling method, the number of interviews in each district and even the time spent in a particular province were reflections of the prevalence of ECM in that area.  Considering all the variations and differences, a methodology was adopted that fulfilled what was needed for this crucial step.  It is worth mentioning that the methodological decisions were unique and tailored for this sort of gender-sensitive research, based on the programme areas’ unique characteristics.  Such decisions might not be applicable in other contexts.

To explore the programme areas, the study narrowed the search to selected areas of interest by using data from the National Organisation for Civil Registration.

The seven provinces with the highest rates of registered child marriages, based on demographic information from the most recent decade, were selected.  They were:

  1. Razavi Khorasan;
  2. East Azerbaijan;
  3. Khuzestan;
  4. Sistan and Baluchestan;
  5. West Azerbaijan;
  6. Hormozgan; and

The contexts and indicators of ECM were examined in terms of three age groups:  less than 10 years of age, 10 to 14 years of age, and 15 to 19 years of age.

The broadness of the programme areas, the budget and the time constraints necessitated the use of cluster sampling.

Several towns located in the north, south, east and west of Iran were selected for the first cluster.  Some villages of each town were selected as the next cluster.

The number of interviews conducted in each province was based on its rank in the latest rank table.  Accordingly, all programme areas required different numbers of interviews.  Altogether, about 300 people were interviewed – 60% female and 40% male.

Although the questionnaire used in them was a local edition of the Demographic and Health Survey (the ‘DHS’) questionnaires, a great part of it was made by the researchers.  The study utilised household-survey data from the DHS to assess ECM levels by country and provide further analyses of how ECM correlates with additional indicators.  The DHS conducts nationally representative household surveys designed to measure the health and nutrition statuses of women and children in developing countries.

To use the DHS standard questionnaires in this study, it was vital to make some changes and modifications to translate the questions into local languages and make the surveys user friendly.  According to the specific cultural differences and variations in each district, adjustments were necessary.  Answers to structured questions, as well as observations, were obtained through interviews and used in the categories of Background, Marriage, Marriage Decision, Female Reproduction, Male Reproduction, Gender Attitudes, Female Sexual Violence and Male Domestic Violence.  The questionnaire focused on the prevalence and causes of ECM in the surveyed areas.  This type of questionnaire was used to interview only local people, but the study also gathered the viewpoints of authorities, governmental figures and religious and community leaders, which influenced and changed the types of questions asked.  The procedure thus varied structurally.

Survey Results

The research establishes that family type (and/or household structure), combined with gender, dramatically affects the likelihood of poverty.  Our findings confirm that single-parent households – which are overwhelmingly female-headed in all seven provinces – face the greatest risk of poverty.  Women who are married young become invisible in their communities; it is both a human-rights violation and something that perpetuates the cycle of poverty.  The research has gauged three variables, triangulated through grounded theory, that show ECM constitutes a foundation for gendered poverty.

The first variable was the ratio of ECM in the respective provinces, which was calculated in terms of child marriages to total marriages.  It gave us a clear picture that the prevalence of ECM is quite high in Razavi Khorasan and Khuzestan provinces. Altogether, the prevalence of ECM was 38% of all marriages across the seven provinces over the span of ten years.

Picture4 1

Figure 1.  Ratio of ECM to all marriages in each province in ten years (2005–2014)

Figure 1 shows ECM’s prevalence in the last ten years in the selected seven provinces in Iran.  ECM is still practised at high rates.  However, the percentage of ECM is alarmingly higher for girls than it is for boys.  As shown in Figure 2, a comparative analysis over a period of ten years of underaged girls and boys reveals that the level of marriages for young girls under the age of 18 is much higher than for young boys.

Figure 2.  Marriage under the age of 18 in seven provinces across ten years (2005–2014)

Alongside the high ECM rate, there has been an increased rate of divorce in people under the age of 18 (in comparison to the previous decade).  As shown in Figure 2, the rates differ based on gender, meaning that ECM is more of an issue for girls than boys.

Figure 3.  Divorce under 18 years of age in seven provinces over the span of ten years (2005–2014)

The divorce rate is rising among increasingly younger children.  Each year, higher numbers of children under the age of 18 are either divorcing or becoming child widows.  Again, the issue affects more female children than male, meaning that vulnerable divorced or widowed girls under 18 are more prevalent than vulnerable widowed boys, because very young girls are frequently married to significantly older men.  Because of the stigma associated with divorce and the position of women in society, broken marriages leave many girls living alone and raising children with no support.

While boys are sometimes subjected to ECM, girls are disproportionately affected and form the vast majority of victims.

For girls, the affects reach well beyond adolescence.

Many aspects of their lives are controlled by older men who consider them little more than sexual and domestic servants.  The greater the age difference, the more likely girls are to be disempowered and at risk of violence, abuse or exploitation.  Sometimes the girls’ problems begin only after making it home with their babies, when they are frequently abandoned by their husbands (International Centre for Research on Women, 2007, p.10; Child Protection and Gender-Based Violence Sub-Working Group Jordan, 2013, p.2).

The complex issue of ECM is rooted in gender inequality and the belief that girls and women are somehow inferior to boys and men.  The main driving forces are patriarchal notions and the desire to subjugate women to control their sexualities.  Poverty, lack of education, cultural practices and insecurity fuel and sustain ECM’s existence, as girls are not valued as much as boys.  They are seen as burdens on their families.  Marrying off a girl at a young age can be viewed as a way to ease economic hardship, transferring this ‘burden’ to her husband’s family (Save the Children, 2003).  ECM is also driven by the desire to control how a girl should behave, how she should dress, who she should be allowed to see and marry, etc.

Similarly, divorce rates are also higher in young girls in comparison to boys due to multiple factors that magnify the increasing number of social issues for girls.  There are a number of young marriages that come to an early end.  Girls who marry young are more prone to be divorced at an early age.  Child brides are often disempowered and dependent on their husbands, leaving them with more social problems that as child divorcees or widows they are simply not capable of handling.  The enormous responsibility on a young girl going from a wife, then a mother, to a divorcee or widow is catastrophic.  These girls are more vulnerable to persistent poverty if their spouses die, abandon or divorce them.

Girls widowed earlier in life face economic and social challenges for a greater portion of their lives than women who marry later.  This problem threatens to increase with the expanding youth population in the developing world (UNICEF, undated).  In addition, as ECM is considered an interfamilial binding contract, the breaking of it (i.e. divorce) can have serious consequences both for the families and for the girl.  Even those girls with the option of divorcing an abusive spouse are vulnerable because they have little earning power, education or financial support (Council of Foreign Relations, 2021).

My Mother was a housemaid, cleaning people’s houses.  I couldn’t study though.  I myself now am a housemaid too.  On that time I thought by getting married early, I cut one mouth to feed.  I thought that I’m doing the best for my family.  I didn’t even know to whom I’m marrying.

Female respondent, 32 , Kuy-e Al-e Safi, Ahvaz, Khuzestan province

Widowhood is one of the most neglected gender and human-rights issues related to ECM.  These young girls, long invisible in many countries, are the most vulnerable.  This is a particularly acute problem in rural areas, where traditions, customs and discriminatory interpretations of religious codes often dominate and where there is a glaring lack of modernity and marriage legislation.  The consequences of widowhood include social ostracization, economic dependency, marginalisation, legal discrimination, political insensitivity and human-rights violations.  All these consequences are intensified by the fact that they are being faced by child widows, who are extremely vulnerable (Goddard).  Child widows are the legacy of ECM.

An analysis of the ECM statistics over the last decade shows that the child marriage ratio to total marriages has always been greater than 35%.  This is a reflection of the cultural norms that flourish within the social system to perpetuate the practice of ECM.

Discussion

My mother-in-law said that I swear you’re infertile.  So, I cut off the pills I took and got pregnant two months later.  Then I found out that she intentionally said those things so that I could have a baby.  I wanted to have baby in other conditions not in that poverty, and, as a child; I wanted her wishes to come true.  I have anaemia and asthenia.

~ Female Respondent, 32, Kuy-e Al-e Safi, Ahvaz city, Khuzestan province

The findings of the research and survey results can be briefly summarised in the following analytical model, which depicts the relationships among the numerous independent variables that trigger ECM.  The consequences of ECM are dependent variables shown on the right side of the model, which then become new independent variables.  Gender and area of residency (urban or rural areas) are considered control variables.

Picture8 1

Figure 4.  Analytical model of the study

 

A closer look at the model gives us an overview of how poverty is a prominent variable – a leading cause and consequence of ECM.  Poverty and ECM are closely interlinked.  ECM precludes the possibility of education, employment and other economic development, and exposes girls to a multiplicity of vulnerabilities (Sanlaap, n.d., p.4).

There is a growing number of girls forced to get married for security and economic problems and in the years of war.  Families use marriage as a defence mechanism to prevent any violence caused by war.  Military forces use sexual harassments as a weapon of war.  That’s why child and early marriages is a way to get out of it for families.

~ Aram Shakaram, Member of Save the Children

Poverty and not being able to pay fees was the most common reason why children dropped out of school in Hormozgan province.  In East Azerbaijan, schools being far away was also a contributing factor to respondents dropping out of school.  Details on reasons for school dropout are provided as an example.  ECM perpetuates the cycle of poverty by cutting short girls’ education, pushing them into early and repeated pregnancies and limiting their opportunities for employment.

The discontinuance of the privileges of childhood also encompasses the discontinuance of education.  ECM and school dropout are the twin events that mark the exit of childhood in young girls’ lives.  The findings of the research were overwhelming in this regard.  ECM is accompanied by a parallel and connected incident of dropping out of school.  More so in poor households, the value given to pursuing girls’ education is directly related to the prospects of improving employment and earning opportunities.  Low levels of education restrict girls’ economic autonomies, thus increasing their vulnerabilities.  In the case of a girl child, aspirations in the education and professional spheres may be stifled by predetermined gender roles that see a woman confined within domestic walls.  In such cases, investing in girls’ education clashes with the economics of poor households.  What little resources are available for the future of their daughters is invested in wedding expenses and dowries, rather than extending educations.

My father found me a husband when I was 13 and I had my first child at 14.  I have no clue about my dowry!  My father never sent me to school.  Given that I got married at 13 and I had nothing but sickness during the beginning of my marriage and also I don’t see early marriage appropriate, but I still want my daughter to get married at 15, so that she wouldn’t get involved in emotional relationships and others wouldn’t abuse her.

~ Shahin, 27, Pir Ali Village, Orumie, West Azerbaijan

Conclusions and Recommendations

A review of the survey findings and literature and an empirical analysis shed light on the gendered outcomes of ECM, which directly lead to an increase in gendered poverty.  Our findings reveal how ECM intersects with various social institutions to shape women’s risks of poverty, both absolutely and relative to men’s.  While the relationship between gender and poverty is complex, several elements of this relationship are evident.

ECM’s dominant position in the gender-inequality chain continues to flourish against a background of poverty, social expectations, sexual violence, culturally-embedded sexual norms, gender stereotypes, social pressures and family hardships.  This demands new policies and solutions and acceptance of norms that reflect gender equality.

By placing children in adulthood roles, ECM affects the present and the next generation in terms of multiple pregnancies, restricted access to education and income-generation opportunities, enforced social seclusion, early widowhood, abandonment, and trapping survivors in a generational cycle of outdated roles and rules.  The acute gender-based oppression permeates the collective thinking process and passes on to the next generation.

Regardless of geographical and cultural setting, ECM seems to directly correlate with conditions that typically characterise poor development, such as rural residences, low or no formal education, and poverty.  Pronounced disparities emerge in the prevalence of ECM.  This in turn affects efforts to eradicate extreme poverty (Sustainable Development Goal 1), since child brides miss out on the education and economic opportunities needed to lift themselves and their families out of poverty.  Poverty is both a key determinant and a manifestation of ECM as witnessed in Bangladesh, Mali, Mozambique and Niger, where more than half of girls are married before the age of 18.  In these countries, more than 75% of people live on less than $2 a day.  Mali is a particular example of this dire economic situation (Population Reference Bureau, 2005).

Responses to ECM may geographically and culturally vary.  What may efficiently work in one province can exacerbate the phenomenon in another, and what is deemed acceptable in one nationality or culture may not hold true in another.  For instance, the means by which preventative messages about ECM are transferred to people are different, depending on the region.  A holistic, comprehensive and coordinated policy must factor in the specificities of each respective culture, as a one-size-fits-all approach may simply be unfeasible.  This requires adaptability and flexibility.  Policy-makers must be cognisance of differences and variations when enacting a central action programme to eradicate ECM.

The complexity of ECM requires that effective legal, policy and programme measures be taken by coordinating efforts at the international, national and local levels.  There are a range of approaches needed to address EMC, and, crucially, everyone has a role to play.  This means there must be long-term, sustainable interventions that are coordinated, well-resourced and reflect the empowerment of girls, mobilisation of families and communities, access to services, and establishment and implementation of laws and policies.

There remains much to be done to combat ECM in Iran.  Based on the findings from the analysis and input from survey participants, the recommendations of the study are listed below.  Many of the recommendations reinforce existing ECM-prevention programmes and emphasise that multifaceted, holistic approaches are needed to tackle the problem.

Official registration of all births and marriages must be mandated to negate existing ECM by making it impossible.  With a limited or lack of reliable official records of birth, it is difficult to determine a bride’s age with certainty.  Parental estimates can be inaccurate, false and simply a lie.  Registration is a critical step to counter the practice of ECM as it provides proof of girls’ ages.  Sound marriage registration is only possible if it can be founded on timely and rigorous birth registration.  Birth registration is a fundamental human right that supports the enjoyment of a host of other entitlements.  In countries where birth registration is not compulsory or is implemented inconsistently, marriage registration is liable to hinge on non-existent or unreliable birth certificates.  According to UNICEF, the gap in recording births facilitates the falsification of the ages and identities of children, particularly of girls being sought for early marriage.  When a girl’s birth is properly certified, the advantages are priceless:  her identity is protected, her capacity to access basic services is heightened and her protective rights are greatly enhanced.  Registering births and marriages helps prevent ECM by proving the age of a girl and her partner and allows girls and women to seek financial and legal redress if the marriage ends.

The role of government is pivotal.  Government, as the origin of every country’s power base, can be crucial in ECM’s prevention.  A clear governmental commitment is needed to ensure the law is adequately enforced, particularly as social and cultural norms tend to override legal norms.  Governments must show strong political leadership by making ECM of national importance and providing adequate financial resourcing across ministries to tackle the issue holistically.  Governments can further coordinate organisations’ policies and provide funds for studies on ECM and other related projects to diffuse messages about ECM to the populace.  This is crucial to ensure protective and non-discriminatory legal frameworks and strict implementation of laws and policies, as well as provide effective education, protection services, reproductive/sexual healthcare and legal remedies to both married and unmarried girls.

Evidence widely shows that keeping a girl in school is crucial.  Just as ECM interferes with girls’ educations, the education of girls pushes back ECM.  According to research by the International Center for Research on Women, in 18 out of the 20 countries with the highest prevalence of child marriage, the level of education a girl reaches is the most powerful predictor of the marriage age.  Consistently, in all regions, girls with higher education levels are less likely to marry as children.

 

Educating the public about ECM and raising their general literacy is a must.  In this study, the respondents showed various states of glaring ignorance and/or little to no knowledge about ECM’s detrimental and overall harmful effects.  ECM is both a cause of illiteracy and an effect of it.  Any step towards tackling ECM must include diffusing information about the negative outcomes to the public.  This is when the power of technology comes into play through the use of mass-media campaigns and other innovative methods such as radio, TV, mobile phones and digital media to raise awareness of girls’ rights and the impacts of child marriage.  Without this important factor, which can change opinions and values, anything looking like advancement would be unreal – the result of outside forces – and impermanent.

Legislation defining age for compulsory education should progressively align with the minimum age for marriage.  In Iran, changing the legal marriage age, which currently is 13 years for girls (and a shocking nine years with the court’s permission) and 15 for boys, is crucial.  It is important to note that, while most countries legislate for a minimum legal age of marriage, the age of marriage is often higher for men than it is for women and many countries continue to have a legal age of marriage lower than that recommended in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The practice of ECM in many communities has flourished due to a lack of knowledge and awareness of the negative drawbacks and consequences of it.  It is imperative that efforts be undertaken to mobilise communities using knowledge and education about its negative physical, psychological and social impacts.  Community involvement in the eradication of ECM must be reinforced.  A comprehensive advocacy plan should be designed and implemented to promote the empowerment of children, girls in particular, as a social norm.

Working with men and boys is a critical part of ending ECM.  In many communities it is the men who hold the power and make the decisions.  Interventions targeting fathers, brothers, husbands and future husbands are important in helping men and boys reflect on the gender status quo and seeing the benefits of a community that values and supports girls and women to fulfil their potentials.

Community programmes should be conceived to benefit girls from families with financial incentives to marry off their children, including helplines for victims and shelters or other safe places for girls.  In addition to that, capacity-building and education for community leaders and other key actors on the negative impacts of ECM will further help to ensure that it does not continue.

A multi-faceted, holistic approach is required by involving all players from civil society, communities and government to look at what limits women’s development and respond accordingly with integrated approaches, including interventions at the community level and strengthening national policies.

Religious leaders have been important agents of change.  It is therefore essential that religious leaders receive training on the adverse effects of ECM.  Given the influence of religion, approaching the issue through the enforcement of Sharia law may be an effective strategy.  A comprehensive method must be developed to train and consult these religious leaders to diffuse the preventative message.  In communities where religious leaders play prominent roles in decision-making or influencing the prevailing norms, it is necessary to garner their support as positive advocates for change.

The widespread traditional practice of temporary marriage further fuels the frequency of ECM in Iran.  Often, following the initial removal of a young girl from her parental home under the pretext of marriage, she is sold into the sex trade, or just sold to another husband, as in the case of so-called fake or temporary child marriages.  Men may engage in serial unions, marrying a girl for a limited time until she conceives a child (hopefully a boy, if the previous or present traditional marriage has failed to produce one) or is able to assist in economic activities.  These young girls are then abandoned (and her child, if unwanted) once she is no longer needed.  Once girls are abandoned, they are unmarriageable and forced to continue lives of exclusion.  Child marriage thus turns into human trafficking, free labour, prostitution or, in short, the enslavement of a girl for the purpose of indiscriminate exploitation.  This is one of the prominent contributory factors to the increasing trend of ECM in Iran.  Tracking of such marriages is not easy as they are not registered transactions.  There is no doubt that the registration of temporary marriages would not only highlight the prevalence of ECM in Iran, but also would help to prevent sex trafficking and child prostitution.

Empowering girls by giving them opportunities to build skills and knowledge, to understand and exercise their rights and to develop support networks plays an important part in ending ECM.  As girls are the victims and later the survivors they are also the agents of change.  Girls are the key to social transformation around ECM.  Young girls should be helped to develop the necessary resilience to defend themselves from attempts made by adults, even well-meaning parents or elders, to marry them before they attain majority.

In addition to protecting itself, a well-informed, aware and proactive new generation would provide the backbone of initiatives being set in motion in their communities, countries and internationally to progressively make ECM an echo of an extinct tradition.  Knowledge of marriage laws and reproductive rights could be integrated into their life-skills training to improve girls’ knowledge about their reproductive health and legal rights, including the right not to marry before the age of 18 and the right to give free and full consent (or dissent) to marriage.  Activities could also include increasing girls’ self-confidence and ability to negotiate key life decisions, including continuing schooling and annulling marriages.

It is high time for Iranian legal authorities to incorporate international laws into the legal system and practice.  As a signatory to CEDAW and the CRC, Iran has the legal responsibility to take all necessary legislative, judicial, administrative and other measures to ensure the full attainment of women’s and children’s rights, which are an integral part of these conventions.

A range of policies and programmes are needed to assess and reduce ECM and its impact.  That would include data research.  At present, there is a serious lack of data on all aspects of ECM, and even less on ECM in Iran.  These gaps need to be filled urgently, since data influence and guide policies and programmes and provide bases for effective advocacy.  Existing demographic data may be disaggregated and used in ways that tell us more about the prevalence of ECM.

This substantial shortage of available material on ECM in Iran is a matter of immense concern.  There is a lack of awareness in the populace and indifference shown by the Government.  In Iran, the contemporary research bodies analyse child- and gender-based issues such as domestic violence and child education.  ECM, however, has been largely ignored.  This attitude of indifference towards ECM has resulted in a scarcity of data on the issue, which has limited knowledge about the issue in the domestic and international communities.  Many have no idea about the presence of ECM in Iran.  Consequently, in many global reports on ECM, Iran is scarcely mentioned.

It is vital that more research on the topic be undertaken so that the world is cognisant that ECM in Iran is highly prevalent.  The research would also assist the Government, law-makers, civil institutions, analysts and policy-makers in Iran in identifying and combatting the issue.  Academic society, scholars and university researchers are needed to undertake more in-depth studies and country-level reporting on ECM to document the nature and prevalence of ECM and its ensuing sexual violence.

The Iranian Government desperately needs to develop comprehensive social-safety-net programmes, reduce the poverty level and provide economic opportunities to encourage families to end ECM.  In the worldwide battle to eliminate ECM, Iran has been neglectful and neglected.

 

About the Author

A social anthropologist and scholar, Kameel Ahmady received the IKWR 2017 Truth Honour Award from London Law University and placed first in the literary category at the 2017 Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Foundation ceremony hosted by George Washington University.

A dual British-Iranian national, Kameel Ahmady studied economic environment and publishing at the University of Communications in London, earned an M.A. in Social Anthropology from the University of Kent, and pursued additional courses on research methods and Middle East Studies at the London School of Economics and Birkbeck, University of London.

Kameel has worked mainly on international and social development, focusing on gender and minority issues. Published in English, Farsi, Turkish and Kurdish, his previous pioneering research has garnered international attention. In 2011, Etkin in Istanbul brought out Another Look at East and South-East Turkey, and his ground-breaking research, In the Name of Tradition: Female Genital Mutilation in Iran, appeared in 2015 with UnCUT/VOICES Press. Nova Science Publisher added An Echo of Silence – a study of early child marriage (ECM) in Iran – to its programme in 2017, a work that Shiraze publishing made available in Farsi. In 2019, Childhood Plunder (about scavenging – i.e.

waste picking – in Tehran) was printed by IRSPRC. In 2020, A House on Water, investigating temporary marriage in Iran, was brought out by Shiraze in Tehran and Mehri in London.

In the last few years, Kameel has focused on LGBT+ and ethnicity in such works as Forbidden Tale, a comprehensive study of LGBT+ individuals in Iran, printed in English and Farsi by Mehri. In 2020, The House with an Open Door, a comprehensive look at temporary marriage in Iran, was printed, and in 2021, From Border to Border: An analysis of Iranian identity and ethnicity, based on research with five major ethnic groups – Turkish (Azari), Kurdish, Baloch, Arab and Fars (Persian-speaking) – was also published by Mehri in Farsi and English. His new book on child labour, Traces of Exploitation in Childhood: A Comprehensive Research on Forms, Causes and Consequences of Child Labour in Iran was published in June 2021 by Avaye Buf publishing. His latest research on male circumcision (MGM) will appear shortly.

 

References

Alemu, B. (2008). Early Marriage in Ethiopia: Causes and Health Consequences. Exchange on HIV and AIDS, Sexuality and Gender, 1, 4–6.

Amani Campaign (2014). Interagency child protection and gender based violence campaign, Jordan. www.data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/.

Child Protection and Gender-Based Violence Sub-Working Group Jordan (2013). Findings from the Inter-Agency Child Protection and Gender-Based Violence Assessment in the Za’atari Refugee Camp, July 2013.

Council of Foreign Relations (2021). Child Marriage. www.cfr.org/child-marriage/#!/.

Goddard, R. (undated). Young Widows: A Neglected Gender and Human Rights Issue. [Speech]. The National Alliance of Women’s Organisations. www.nawo.org.uk.

Findlay, J. and Wright, R. E. (1996). Gender, Poverty and the Intra-Household Distribution of Resources. Review of Income and Wealth, 42(3), 335–351.

International Centre for Research on Women (2007) New Insights on Preventing Child Marriage: A global analysis of factors and programs.

Loaiza Sr, E. and Wong, S. (2012). Marrying Too Young: End Child Marriage.

Population Reference Bureau (2005). 2005 World Population Data Sheet.

Sanlaap (undated). Child Marriage: West Bengal Scenario.

Save the Children (2003). Rights of Passage.

ThoughtCo. (undated) Ten Facts About Child Brides. Women’s Issues. http://womensissues.about.com/od/violenceagainstwomen/tp/TenFactsAboutChildBrides.htm.

UNICEF (2001). Early Marriage: Child Spouses.

UNICEF (2004). Girls’ Education: Introduction.

UNICEF (2014). Child Marriage In Jordan.

UNICEF (undated). Child Marriages: 39,000 Every Day. www.unicef.org/media/press-centre.

 

Download conference version of the article