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The Childhood, Law & Policy Network (CLPN)

Interview with Hoko Horii about her book, Child Marriage, Rights and Choice: Rethinking Agency in International Human Rights

Our member, Dr Hoko Horii (Leiden University, the Netherlands; Kobe University, Japan) talks about her new book, Child Marriage, Rights and Choice: Rethinking Agency in International Human Rights (Routledge, 2021).


Q: What is this book about?

This book challenges the way in which agency is conceptualized in international human rights, by examining the case of child marriage. Based on my fieldwork in Indonesia, as well as my critical analysis of the international legal framework and the discourse over child marriage, I show the complex reasons why children marry, and how the reality of child marriage contrasts with the ‘stereotypical’ child marriage that has been portrayed by the international human rights frameworks and organizations.

By doing so, the book elucidates how the child marriage framework – and, indeed, the human rights framework in general – is constructed on too narrow a vision of human agency: one that cannot but fail to respect and promote the agency of all, regardless of gender, race, religion, and age. This finding is an innovative and significant contribution to the theories and literature on international human rights, children’s rights, legal anthropology, and socio-legal studies. Furthermore, the book provides rich ethnographic accounts and nuanced insights that are useful and needed for practitioners who work on the topics of child marriage, human rights, and children’s rights.

 Q: What made you write this book?

Halfway through my research project on child marriage, I attended a Girls Advocacy Alliance’s event in Amsterdam, where they introduced their projects as aiming to support girls in Africa in “having their own voice heard. This suggests that the ultimate goal is to support their choices. Their representative was a girl from Ethiopia, and she was selected to be heard in Geneva. The girl was chosen because she could tell “vibrant stories” of why she opposes child marriage practice with “capacity and confidence”.

While they emphasized her and other girls’ choice and voice not to marry, discussion about children’s choice and agency to marry was simply absent. I then tried to raise the issue and asked what their approach is to children who themselves want to marry. In their reply they said: they are “constant dialogue with local communities to change customs and traditions”. “It is difficult to fight with that kind of perception”. In their eyes, children cannot possibly want to marry, so they blame such scenarios on bad customs and traditions that they need to combat.

This story made me realize that two contradictory views on agency exists in international human rights. While they emphasize certain autonomous choice made by women, and while they celebrate girls who exercise their agency not to marry, they do not recognize children’s agency to marry. This is of course in line with the approach of international institutions and framework: they try to ban child marriage because they assume that children under the age of 18 are incapable of choosing to get married. But are children really incapable of such choice? If so, how can children be capable of choosing not to get married?

I thought it was important to address this fundamental question about agency in international human rights, and to explore these concrete questions by studying the case of child marriage. With my book I show that the international child marriage framework influences transnational and national policies and programs. Human rights advocates, such as the Girls Advocacy Alliance, work within this established framework.

In this sense, human rights law and discourse produce particular practices. They provide specific rules and directions that civil society organizations and policymakers follow. However, these laws and discourses are also a product of specific ways of thinking about development, progress, and freedom. I explored the puzzle of ‘agency’ within this framework and tried to understand what choice means for international organizations, and for children themselves. My aim is to offer a perspective and create space for discussions about this uncomfortable topic.

Excerpt from the book:

Overall, the analysis and discussions throughout the chapters reveal the multi-layered reasons why children marry. Structural explanations (e.g., lack of opportunities and oppressive social structures) are important but not exhaustive explanations. Organizations that work within the international child marriage framework tend to focus exclusively on these structural reasons and are inattentive to the other subjective reasons why children marry. In contrast to structural constraints that individuals cannot control, subjective reasons are those an individual feels and describes.

By exploring the subjective reasons by listening to children’s perspectives, this book showed that many of them decide to marry for love, desire, to belong to the community, and for new opportunities and hopes. These subjective reasons for why children marry have been largely absent from the human rights discourse because the structural reasons silence them.

Acknowledging children’s agency to marry highlights that the current child marriage framework is constructed on a partial understanding of why they marry. For instance, adolescents’ sexuality is missing, which is at the heart of child marriage. Social (un)acceptance of pre-marital sexual intercourse and (in)availability of tools for reproductive health are the core factors for why teenagers marry in Indonesia. Given that many adolescents worldwide live in societies where pre-marital sexual and romantic relationships are a taboo and even a crime, marriage is sometimes a way to have ‘legitimate’ sex, to gain sexual autonomy and moral legitimacy. In this sense, the new minimum age for marriage in Indonesia raises a serious question concerning adolescents’ sexuality and age of consent (i.e., to have sexual intercourse), which was completely absent in the debates about the new law.

The control (or lack thereof) of teenagers’ sexual behaviour is a common concern across countries. Even within the Western world, parents deal differently with their children’s sexuality. Schalet (2011) demonstrates how American parents struggle controlling their children’s sexual behaviour, while Dutch parents manage it by often permitting young couples to sleep together and providing them with contraceptives. Desiring bodies and mind is universal and hard to rationalize. Conceptualizing agency as making rational decisions thus seems to leave little space for children’s sexual autonomy. The question about children’s sexual autonomy leads further to discussing children’s consent to sexual intercourse and state regulations on this issue, which needs further exploration.

Just as norms around sexuality differ, the meanings and norms around marriage also differ in each country and society, and for each individual. While marriage tends to be seen as a vehicle for individual fulfilment, the previous chapters showed that marriage in Indonesia often involves much more collective processes and meanings. These divergences in marriage and sexuality illuminate that when the human rights framework constructs an overall framework of ‘child marriage’, the consequences of this framework differ in each society.

This point about marriage’s diverse meanings and consequences means that the strict and rigid child marriage framework to ban all marriages under the age of 18 is not an effective approach. In other words, legislation on minimum age of marriage is not the most appropriate way to decrease the incidence of child marriage, neither to fully realize children’s rights. It is understandable why this abolitionist approach is appealing for advocates since they focus on the negative consequences of child marriage for girls, as presented in their reports and campaigns. These consequences include reduced educational opportunities, reproductive health hazards (e.g., difficult deliveries, a higher risk of HIV/AIDS, and premature babies with disabilities), and intergenerational poverty. However, these consequences are mainly a discourse at the international agenda for women’s rights and cannot be taken for granted. These discussions are limited because the consequences are not always well supported by evidence, and the causal relationship between child marriage and these consequences is often reversed. For example, child marriage can be a consequence of a lack of educational opportunities. 

Overall, the monolithic framework based on a partial understanding of why children marry further hinders understanding the core problem. It does so by traditionalizing the problem: Turning a global social challenge (teenage pregnancy) into a cultural phenomenon (‘harmful traditional practice’) that is alien to the West or to the upper-middle-class in the South. The label ‘harmful traditional practice’ obscures the social reality and prevents policy efforts from being effective. The focus on ‘banning’ or ‘eradicating child marriage’ will not solve the underlying social problems, such as lack of tools and knowledge about reproductive health. The data has proved that child marriage is often a symptom of unplanned pregnancies outside of wedlock, and therefore policies and programs should be redirected to address this root cause.



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