What this feminist and child-marriage proponents have in common
When I met my fiancé, I had to reconsider my objection to marriage. Likewise, as the campaign known as Girls Not Brides kicks off, patriarchs who support child marriage will also have to reconsider their views; fortunately, there are models for how to change social norms about women.
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I could have easily refused to get married. I can point out a hundred and one ways in which the institution is flawed. It was hard for me to listen to my partner and trusted friends, to consider new angles and complicate my view.Skip to next paragraph
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When I think about the discomfort that the proponents of child marriage will have to feel in the coming months and years as they reconsider their position, I actually have great empathy. Their worldview, like mine, is organized around set beliefs about what is rational and right. Shaking those foundations is going to be much harder than clinging to their long-held beliefs and practices. It requires letting go of control, relinquishing certainty, a great and painful humbling.
There are, however, plenty of promising real life examples of how this can happen. Foot-binding in China, a centuries-old tradition in which little girls’ feet were literally bound so that their movements would appear more dainty and feminine as they aged, was ended within a few decades. A savvy campaign brought about the rapid shift by working both from the top down, via a government mandate, and also from the bottom up, via a pledge system among parents that they would neither bind their own daughters’ feet nor let their sons marry girls whose feet had been bound.
Another hopeful and more recent story of cultural change comes from Senegal, where networks of local women have educated one another about the dangers of female genital cutting – once thought to be an essential rite of passage. Public declarations and community pledges help reinforce the word-of-mouth approach, largely driven by a community-led development organization called Tostan. While the work in Senegal and other West African countries isn’t finished, norms are undeniably shifting to keep girls safe.
Those who study how traditions shift have found that, rather than a tipping point, there is often a “tipping person” who makes all the difference. In other words, those with clout in the community can be pivotal influencers in shifting whole communities’ perspectives and practices. According to a 2009 report by The International Center for Research for Women that looked closely at such examples, “Mobilizing the support of influential males in the innovation system was a powerful, commonly employed strategy that enabled more dramatic results in women’s empowerment.”
We look at social change with a macro lens so often, but rarely do we zoom in on this micro truth – large-scale change requires individuals who are willing to take a chance on a new idea or practice. It requires individual discomfort and courage and flexibility. This is what maturity – in an individual or in a society – is really about. We must deeply consider the radical power of abandoning some traditions and re-imagining others.
This is the challenge ahead for us all. While a 13-year-old should never be forced to marry, a 31-year-old should sometimes be forced to reconsider her stubborn views on old traditions. And elders and role models – as so gracefully demonstrated by Mr. Tutu, Mr. Mandela, Ms. Robinson, and others – should exemplify the never-ending challenge of growing, changing, and letting go.
As the world has seen, a few respected members of a community can bring about a sea change in social norms within a generation. With that kind of precedent in our past, there is room to hope that the world has seen its last generation of child brides.
Courtney E. Martin is the author of the new book, “Project Rebirth: Survival and the Strength of the Human Spirit from 9/11 Survivors,” as well as “Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists,” “Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body,” and coeditor of the anthology “Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists.” She is also editor emeritus at feministing.com. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.
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