This is the first of a two part response to Elaine Dalton’s recent BYU Devotional speech.
Globally, early marriage is inextricably linked to development and human rights concerns. I believe that the words of a general officer of our worldwide church should be considered from a worldwide perspective. In this light, some of her conclusions are troubling.
A few facts about some of the places in the world the church is growing:
Percent of girls marrying before age
- South Asia 48%
- Bangladesh % (before age 15)
- Africa 42%
- Kazakhstan %
Even within the U.S. church, there are troubling examples that I’ve witnessed firsthand of seventeen year old girls, still in high school, getting married.
- A seventeen-year-old girl married her returned missionary boyfriend in the temple. A few months later he called the high school to excuse her when she was sick and they insisted they needed to talk to a parent (clearly someone at the high school did not know that this is not legally necessary once the child is married in Utah). This happened in the last 10 years in the SLC metropolitan area. Her parents urged the marriage because they worried that she and her twenty-something boyfriend would otherwise break the Law of Chastity.
- A young Mormon Arizona couple, again the bride was seventeen, had to call home before boarding a cruise ship to their honeymoon because she was underage. Again, the couple was urged to marry because it was better than, “living in sin.”
While marriage at age 17 is not the norm in the church, I imagine it could be (or younger) in parts of developing world where the church is growing quickly. And while Sister Dalton would likely deny that she is advocating child marriage, the impact of her words could encourage girls to dismiss the concerns of their parents and marry too young, or encourage parents to push early marriage. In some cases, her words could encourage parents to allow underage marriage. It behooves us to realize that this practice is not only unwise, it actually violates international human right norms.
Child marriage occurs when one or both of the spouses are below the age of Child marriage is a violation of Article 16(2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The UNFPA report Marrying Too Young, End Child Marriage points out that, “Many girls, for example, may have little understanding of or exposure to other life options. They may “willingly” accept marriage as their allotted fate.” When girls think their virtue is so important that they are getting married at age 17 so as to protect it, we have a problem. When girls are taught that it would be better to marry at 17, 18, or 19 (or younger) instead of losing an intact hymen, that is coercion. They feel, in fact, they have no other options. Their human rights are being violated.
There are sure to be readers who feel this talk does not apply globally (although I’m not sure why not), therefore it’s ok for President Dalton to promote early marriage in Utah where the average age of first marriage is for women and for men. Note that the U.S. national average is for men and for women, and that Utah has the lowest marrying age in the country. But President Dalton wasn’t speaking just in Utah, she was speaking at BYU—where the World is Your Campus. Last month I heard of a young African student in his mid twenties preparing for study at a BYU campus. His fiancée would remain home in Africa while she finished high school and then they would marry when he returned and she was Nearly half of all African women marry before they are This talk would, and indeed I’m sure has, reinforced dangerous cultural norms not only in the U.S. church (it’s better to just hurry up and get married rather than have sex) but within the global church. Members from developing countries who study at the university and Americans who develop foundations from talks like President Dalton’s will carry her words with them abroad, with the stamp of God added to ideas that disadvantage women the world over; the idea that women can’t be too young to marry, that education for women isn’t that important, but that their virginity is.
I’m not sure what church demographics will look like in 30 years, especially in places like India where the church enjoys robust growth and where 47% of girls are married before age 18 and 18% before age 15, but I do know this:
For the period , just over one third (an estimated 34 per cent) of women aged 20 to 24 years in developing regions were married or in union before their eighteenth birthday. In this was equivalent to almost 67 million women. About 12 per cent of them were married or in union before age 15
By , the number of child brides marrying each year will have grown from in to million, that is over 14 per cent if current trends continue.
It’s not just early marriage that is the problem. A top predictor of economic development the world over, and especially acute in developing countries, is the education level and number of women in the workforce. While it’s true that globally women and girls marry young because of poverty, marrying young coupled with scripted gender roles prolong the poverty cycle. Lack of education leads to lack of personal and familial economic development, which leads to early and frequent childbearing, which leads to more poverty and more lack of opportunities, high malnutrition, high infant mortality and high maternal mortality. We live in a world where currently 15 million children die of hunger every year. We live in a reality where encouraging early marriage and scripted gender roles will keep the world underdeveloped and women and children especially impoverished. As followers of Christ, we aren’t supposed to create poverty, we’re supposed to alleviate it.
Alleviating poverty, especially in the developing countries, takes a multi-tiered approach—an approach that has everything to do with human rights, and everything to do with women getting them. Including lobbying. Stay tuned for part II.
1) There are simple things the church can do to send a message that indeed, there is such a thing as too young, like banning temple marriage before 18 to be in compliance with the Declaration of Human Rights.
2) I’m sure many readers entered into early marriage and are happy. I’m glad this works for them. However it is irrelevant to the post which does not intend to correlate marital satisfaction and age of marriage, but instead correlates cultural coercion and economic outcomes with age of marriage. Please keep that in mind before posting comments about how happy you are after marrying young.
Why We Should Encourage Our Kids to Marry Young
Occasionally someone ventures outside the cultural marriage norms and makes the case for getting married young, but generally, its ingrained deep within us all that theres an acceptable age to marry, and to do so before that is unwise.
But is it?
We admit theres an epidemic of adults who are over-sized children though the full weight of it hasnt fully been realized. But were slow to admit where blame lies. And even if we did, would we be willing to shift the paradigm?
I submit two major things are causing adults to delay marriage, negatively impacting their own adulthood and maturity, and ultimately, all of us.
- The adolescent culture
- The worship of education
Since around , when G. Stanley Hall named the adolescent period, Americans have increasingly coddled their children, protecting their right to childhood, long after what has formerly been called childhood, has ended. Now we have a culture of parents who protect, shield and defend to a fault. They require little work and responsibility for fear it will hamper their fun and they elevate extra curricular opportunities over the practical preparation for life.
So we have Generation Y, the narcissistic generation who wants a ribbon for showing up. Their parents did something wrong.
Answer? We need to balance the natural freedoms and privileges of childhood with our responsibility to help them grow in maturity and wisdom. We need to expect thingsimportant, life things that will help them transition into adulthood when the time comes. We need to let them experience things, while guiding them and pushing them to find truth, to view the world through the lens of Gods Word, where they will find answers for everything.
We need to change our idea of the teen years. We are raising children into adults. Those in between years are the most potent for developing skills, learning, training, preparing and practicing for adult life. These are not years to be frittered away. These are the years where we challenge them and they rise to the challenge of womanhood and manhood, the years of their best strength and courage, where vision is best cast. Youth is where character is grown and practiced, responsibility takes root, and self-control must reign.
Worship of Education
The first one was easy; for this one, buckle up.
We could have the talk about the unnecessary hype of college but that would take too long. If we could understand that college may be necessary for highly specialized vocations, but generally, not necessary for a good education and training in most vocations, we would begin the process of demoting the college degree from some idolized status. It is now, especially in our highly technological age, only one of many ways to a higher education, not the least of which is laborious and expensive.
Too often marriage is pushed off until after college. First, college has taken precedence over the importance of marriage. Second, it is assumed that both cant be done simultaneously.
Sadly, too, in many cases college extends (or worsens) the adolescent stage. Parents pay for their adult children to live (and/or party) during the time they should be assuming those responsibilities.
Weve given the pursuit of (lets be honest) more money precedent over the pursuit of a godly spouse.
Why We Should Support Early Marriage
Marriage is good. Marriage is a gift. Marriage makes us grow up, gives us a companion to weather the stuff of life. Announce youre getting married before the acceptable age, and youll mostly be met with pleads of live some life first. And while the single state has its unique opportunities, marriage certainly doesnt detract from the joys of life, but rather doubles them.
Are You Ready?
Waiting until were ready can be a precarious thing. What is ready?
Financial readiness is the primary reason caution is offered to young couples. Somehow, just having an income isnt enough in our American idealistic dream. Mark Regnerus, in The Case for Early Marriage said:
Marrying young can spell poverty, at least temporarily. Yet the mentality that we need to shield young adults from the usual struggles of life by encouraging them to delay marriage until they are financially secure usually rests on an unrealistic standard of living. Good marriages grow through struggles, including economic ones. My wife and I are still fiscal conservatives because of our early days of austerity.
Nevertheless, the economic domain remains an area in which many parents are often able, but frequently unwilling, to assist their children.This cultural predilection toward punishing rather than blessing marriage must go, and congregations and churchgoers can help by dropping their own punitive positions toward family members, as well as by identifying deserving young couples who could use a little extra help once in a while. Christians are great about supporting their missionaries, but in this matter, we can be missionaries to the marriages in our midst.
What about ready in other ways? Everything I was when I got married has changed. Everything I thought about life has changed. Ive grown. Ive learned. Ive morphed.
Our growing and changing and morphing is best done with our life partner alongside us. Every step toward establishing ourselves as adults without our spouse, is a step toward stubborn independence.
We need the companion, accountability and responsibility marriage brings, and we need it earlier rather than later.
Sure there are exceptions, good reasons to wait. But our prevailing attitude should be to think differently, to love and embrace marriage, not just for one day, but as something to be desired, sought after and celebrated in youth.