Today’s Richard Dawkins-centred Twitter row is about child marriage and Islam. It was sparked by his circulation of a Huffington Post article on the tragic case of an 8 year old girl in Yemen who died of internal injuries caused by the wedding night sex with her new 40 year old husband. A 2009 law to set the minimum age of marriage in Yemen at 17 was repealed by conservatives as “un-Islamic”.
Many of the religious apologist responses pointed out that poverty, not Islam (or any other religion), is the key factor in the prevalence of child marriages. Indeed a recent report by World Vision UK, linked from the Huffington Post article circulated by Dawkins, identifies the girls most at risk of child marriage as tending to be “poor, under-educated and … rural” and living in areas with high death rates, civil conflict and “lower overall levels of development including schooling and healthcare”. “Poverty, weak legislative frameworks and enforcement, harmful traditional practices, gender discrimination and lack of alternative opportunities for girls (especially education) are all major drivers of early marriage,” the report summarises.
I wanted to see the link, so I grabbed some figures and created this graph:
This is a plot showing the prevalence of child marriage, defined as the percentage of women aged 20-24 who were married before the age of 18, against nominal GDP per capita. Blue shows the countries which partially or completely incorporate sharia law in their judicial systems, and red shows those which don’t incorporate any sharia.
Data was taken from the following sources:
- GDP: Wikipedia – List of countries by GDP (nominal) per capita, using the International Monetary Fund 2012 data where available, else the World Bank data
- Child marriage: UNICEF’s Childinfo website, which collates data from a number of sources
- Sharia: Wikipedia – Application of sharia by country
There are a number of major problems with the data, including:
- Known issues with using nominal GDP per capita as a measure of standard of living
- Incomplete data on child marriage, in particular no data on a number of notably conservative Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia
- The extremely simplified nature of the sharia/non-sharia classification, in which, for example, Thailand and the Phillipines count as partially incorporating sharia because of its application in relatively small areas or sections of the population, which aren’t likely to have a large effect on the national child marriage rates
However, bearing in mind the issues with the data, the plot does seem to back up the point that poverty is the major factor involved. There’s definitely a strong negative correlation between GDP and child marriage rates. Sharia doesn’t seem to have a significant effect: the sharia countries are spread over a similar pattern to the non-sharia ones, rather than clustered above them. In fact, the only countries which stand out as having higher child marriage rates than what would seem to be ‘normal’ for their GDP level are non-sharia (notably Brazil, Gabon and the Dominican Republic).
Interesting as it is, it should be noted that it misses the point Dawkins was making. He never made any claim about a general link between sharia, Islam or any religion, and the prevalence of child marriage. In fact, as already mentioned, the article he linked to specifically quoted the World Vision UK report as saying that poverty was the major cause. Dawkins was simply pointing out the shameful fact that this particular death, and at least one other, could have been prevented by Yemen’s minimum marriage age law – except that this law was repealed with an explicitly Islamic justification.