“If you hit a girl with your hat and she doesn’t fall over, it’s time to marry her.”[1]

I came across this saying while reading about women in Afghanistan. I smiled and understood this “quaint” idiom to mean that once a young woman can stand up for herself and is not easily swayed, she is mature enough for the rite of passage into marriage. A quick look at the footnote informed me that I was very wrong.

This Afghan quip is referring to child marriage.

One of Afghanistan’s most destructive practices is that of marrying off their daughters at 16 years old or younger (the technical definition of child marriage) to a man who is often much older. Child marriages are part of a tangled web that keeps females subservient in many ways:

  • A woman who was married when still a child, to a man will always be treated as a little girl. She can never catch up to her husband’s status as the older, wiser spouse, and therefore, she will not be included in decision-making.
  • All child marriage is forced marriage as children are usually not consulted and even when they are, they lack the experience and knowledge necessary for such an important decision (similar to statutory rape).
  • AIDS spreads quickly to young girls because their bodies are still too small for intercourse, causing them to bleed.
  • Many girls suffer from fistula because their bodies are not developed enough for child birth, contributing to the world’s highest maternal mortality rate (that of Afghanistan).[2]
  • As girls discontinue their schooling once they are married, child marriage keeps females uneducated.[3]

Marrying off a daughter at the age of 10 sounds awfully barbaric to westerners. Why would anyone swap precious childhood for premature sexual activity and servitude to a much older husband?

Well-documented answers include poverty and illiteracy.

The poorest countries in the world have the highest child marriage rates—one suggested correlation being that parents of boys have to come up with thousands of dollars to pay the bride price for their sons’ brides-to-be. In order to come up with the exorbitant amount, many parents sell their younger daughters into marriage to an older man who can pay a handsome bride price for her.

Likewise, illiteracy is perpetuated within the cycle. Studies show that most parents who arrange underage marriages for their daughters are illiterate.[3] Being thus cut off from the world of education and power, such families are easily trapped in this tradition.

More complicated answers surface when we reflect our own society. In the US we revere childhood so much that our elementary schools average far less rigorous than those in other developed countries. We tell ourselves that “they’re just kids,” let them believe in Santa Clause; Make it illegal for them to work. But in reality are we protecting the childhood of our little girls?

What about the legalization of viewing child pornography in New York?[4] What about Toddlers and Tiaras? What about putting little girls in dance classes where they learn to dress and dance sensually like adults? From what moral high ground can we point our fingers at Afghanistan? And what accusation are we justified to utter? That their society is overly conservative while ours is…not overly sexualized? It becomes obvious that neither extreme empowers women.

To all things there is a season…and when you hit a girl with your hat and she does not fall down, it is not yet her season for sexuality.

1. UNAMA, “Harmful Traditional Practices and Implementation of the Law on Elimination of Violence against Women in Afghanistan,” 9 Dec. 2010: 18.

2. UNAMA 40

3. UNAMA 44

4. “Child Pornography Legal To View Online In New York; Court Rules Looking At Porn Doesn’t Mean Possession,” The Huff Post, 10 June 2012 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/10/child-pornography-legal-new-york-porn-possession-james-kent_n_1505916.html.

—by KS

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