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'Child marriage does not always occur by force'

Child marriage has become an increasingly important topic on the international human rights and development agenda. Many organisations are calling for a ban, but what problem would such a ban solve? PhD defence on 18 March 2020.

Over the past decade, the United Nations among others has campaigned to end child marriage, regarding it as a human rights violation. 'Currently an increasing amount of investment, time and energy is being spent on ending child marriage', researcher Hoko Horii tells. 'Thus, it is a crucial time to reinvestigate and reconstruct the current approach to child marriage, to ensure that it is effective.'

In her research, Horii examined two central questions. Firstly, why do children marry? And secondly, how does this practice both inform and is treated within the multiple competing normative frameworks that are in place? 'Starting from analysing child marriage discourse at the international level, I then moved on to discuss the political debate about child marriage at the national level. There, I used a case study on Indonesia, where the tension over the issue has arisen between conservative Muslim organisations and liberal groups of human rights advocates. To zoom in further, I investigated child marriage as a social practice on the Indonesian island of Bali, where I conducted fieldwork over a period of six months.'

Hoko Horii

The analysis and discussions throughout her research reveal the multi-layered reasons why children marry. 'Child marriage, defined as 'any formal marriage or informal union where one or both of the parties are under 18 years of age', is considered always forced, assuming that children are not capable of consenting to marriage. Suppressive social structures are important to consider, but, according to this dissertation, many children decide to marry for love, desire, to belong to the community, and for new opportunities and hopes.' Also, child marriage often occurs for practical reasons. 'For young people, child marriage is a socially accepted solution to unplanned teenage pregnancy. In a society where abortion is illegal and birth outside of wedlock is a problem for practical reasons, child marriage can be a way for adolescents to manage their romantic and sexual relationships by accommodating modern social conditions within the customary and more communitarian normative structure.'

Thus, the reality of child marriage covers many aspects according to Horii: 'Campaigns against child marriage tend to present child marriage as a forced marriage between a young teenage girl and a much older man, but my research shows that many cases are in fact marriages of love between adolescents aged around 17.' The international human rights framework assumes that children are not capable of consenting to marriage, but this categorical approach is problematic, the researchers says: 'Looking at the international discourse, since when and how did people under 18 become too young  to marry? My analysis proves that children themselves do and are able to make the decision to marry, albeit under relational and situational constraints at times. The current international framework lacks consideration of diverse views on what 'child' and 'marriage' mean.'

Partial understanding

The current child marriage framework is constructed on a partial understanding of why children marry, Horii concludes. The focus on banning child marriage will not solve the underlying social problems, such as lack of tools and knowledge about reproductive health. Consequently, the framework is currently more constraining rather than liberating. Overcoming the blind spot of the human rights framework requires a twofold shift: firstly, an epistemological shift to deconstruct the dominant narrative; and secondly, a procedural shift to include multi-cultural dialogues, to give space to the diverse views on what constitutes a child.

Horii argues that a more empowerment-focused approach to child marriage is better suited to achieve the human rights and development goals. 'Policies for child marriage should be designed to encourage children's participation in and collaboration with adults in decision-making, where they are informed about their decision's consequences. Government policies and NGO programmes can also be better desgined to provide resilience-based support for married children. Only then can children - both married and not married - lead the lives they wish to live.'

In January an article by Horii on child marriage was awarded a Van Wersch Springplankprijs. The prize, a sum of €5000, is for a scholarly publication by a talented researcher in the field of medical/pharmaceutical and legal research.

Attend this promotion? More information here.

Supervisor prof. A.W. Bedner on Hoko Horii's dissertation:

'Hoko's doctoral thesis is a wonderful example of research that is not only theoretically innovative, but that also has tremendous social relevance. She holds up a mirror to lawyers and organisations that are involved in child rights and shows how campaigns to prohibit all marriages under the age of 18 can actually have an adverse impact. In particular, in societies where there is a taboo attached to sexual relationships outside marriage, the stigma towards children who are born from such relationships is huge and they are faced with all kinds of exclusion throughout their lives. Besides this, Hoko demonstrates that in a country like Indonesia, so-called child marriages in most cases are not between a young girl and a much older man, but usually between 16 and 17-year-old adolescents – something which PhD candidate Mies Grijns had already pointed out.

The theoretical innovation of the thesis lies mainly in the paradox that Hoko demonstrates: while children in international law acquire more and more rights and have a voice on all kinds of issues, they are hardly ever listened to when it comes to their choice to marry.  Their power to act is denied and they are forced to adjust to rules that have been drawn up on the basis of assumptions that only to a limited extent correspond to their daily reality and desires. Hoko has underpinned her findings with a careful analysis of human rights discourse as well as fieldwork conducted at various locations in Indonesia – and all done within a period of four years: a fantastic achievement!'

Text: Floris van den Driesche
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