Population Matters

How sensitive is too sensitive?

June 18th, 2010

Last week, in a conversation over frozen yogurt with my twenty-something-year-old friends, I brought up a conference I had been to earlier that day on child marriage. And, without hesitation, the concept of cultural sensitivity was on the table. My friends’ argument, and rightfully so, was that child marriage is customary and therefore deeply ingrained in the culture of many societies. Who are we, as westerners, to tell these cultures that child marriage is wrong? Of course, many people have this unpleasant, visceral reaction to the thought of an eight-year-old being married to a fifty-year-old. But in other parts of the world, in other societies, there are also many people who do not have that same reaction, and child marriage is accepted as a cultural norm.

Cultural sensitivity is the foundation of effective humanitarian aid. We design interventions, or at least strive to, which are culturally relevant and adhere to traditional customs and local laws. We try (operative word, “try”) to implement policy and foreign assistance programs that respect the cultural attitudes and norms of the people we are trying to help. Thus, when we address issues such as child marriage, we work to be culturally sensitive.

Whether or not child marriage is regarded as a human rights issue, it is an economic development issue, as it is critical to reducing both maternal mortality and high fertility rates. During the USAID Presentation and Panel Discussion: Cross Country Comparison on Delaying Marriage and Improving Reproductive Health Outcomes, we heard about three projects focused on delaying the age at marriage. What struck me about these presentations, and what I think should be the take-away point from this conference, was that the findings of these projects suggest that child marriage is not strictly ingrained in these cultures. Each of the projects, which were conducted in India, Yemen, or Ethiopia, found that communities were open to delaying marriage, so long as they were given alternative avenues for lifting themselves out of poverty. Interventions that offered young women, who would otherwise be married, opportunities for schooling or employment were effectively able to delay the age of marriage.

And yet interventions surrounding child marriage are rare. The projects we heard about are young and considered pilot programs in their field. So why has child marriage become a neglected cause? I think the answer goes back to my conversation with my friends—cultural sensitivity. For fear that child marriage is ingrained in many cultures, we have tip-toed around the issue. But evidence tells us otherwise. These programs suggest that the age of marriage is delayed when young girls and their families are given suitable alternatives. And with this evidence under our belt, it’s time to stop fearing cultural insensitivity and start addressing child marriage. These young women have the right to their adolescence, and a right to control their own fertility and destiny.

Please see our interview with Dr. Rema Nanda, Pathfinder International’s country representative for India. Rema was involved in the design and implementation of Pathfinder’s Promoting Change in Reproductive Behavior (PRACHAR) Project, a project aimed at expanding the use of contraceptives to delay and space pregnancies. This is what she had to say…

Posted by Sarah Chapin, Stanback Fellow

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