Child marriage, GDP and sharia law

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 A 2009 law to set the minimum age of marriage in Yemen at 17 was repealed by conservatives as “un-Islamic”.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:

Child marriage, GDP and sharia

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:

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.

6 thoughts on “Child marriage, GDP and sharia law

    • True. And since the younger the bride, the more likely they are to die in childbirth or even simply after sex (I’m assuming), this way of recording child marriage will disproportionately miss the worst cases. It’s a flaw in the source surveys of the UNICEF Childinfo.org data, and I was only working off the best data I could find. If you look at the table, you’ll see there are a lot of countries simply missing data completely. There’s clearly a lot more useful research work to be done in this area.

  1. Here’s why it’s not missing the point: New York State allows legal marriage at age 14, with parental consent. Granted, 14 is on the good side of puberty, but it’s still damn young. And yet the instances of grown men marrying and deflowering young girls in New York State is statistically non-existent, in large part because there is simply no economic pressure for the parents of girls to push them into marriage.

    That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be better to for there to be a law against the marriage of children in Yemen, or anywhere else. But we don’t want to be too reductionist about what would or would not have prevented it. Many things are invoked as a pretext without being the primary cause, because they are much more difficult to argue against. For example, “freedom” was invoked as a pretext for the Iraq War, in part because it sells better than lust for crude oil would have. It doesn’t follow that we should hold “freedom” to account as a cause.

    • A 40 year old man trying to marry a 14 year old girl in New York State, even if it were a rare case where there was an economic incentive to do so, would also face social opprobrium, because it’s way outside the cultural norm. I agree with you, and the data above suggests, that the cultural norm has developed as a result of the economic situation. Obviously we both want to change the cultures in which 8 year old girls are married to 40 year old men, and it looks like the most effective way of changing those cultures would be to raise the income level of the world’s poorest people. However, that’s not an easy task, nor is it likely to happen very soon.

      Another effective way of changing cultures, that doesn’t require a radical change in global economics, is to change laws – look at how smoking has become significantly less culturally acceptable in places where it’s illegal to smoke indoors in public. You’re right that we can’t say for sure that Yemen’s minimum marriage age law would have saved these girls’ lives had it remained on statute, especially as large parts of Yemen aren’t under government control, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say it might have, or that it’ll save future lives too. What’s standing in the way of that law is hardline religion. The apparent outcry within Yemen shows that there’s significant section of Yemeni society whose cultural norm is already against marrying 8 year olds, and they’re in a struggle against religious conservatives whose cultural norm is in favour of it. That struggle is being fought partly in the legislature. Dawkins highlighted the case because he favours and supports the former side in that struggle, though I doubt he’d disagree that raising the income levels in Yemen and similar societies would an effective means to reducing child marriage.

      • As I wrote to you on Twitter, how many child brides do we see in Bosnia or Turkey? “Islamic” here is, I repeat, a pretext, and it is indeed “Islamophobic” to pretend that there is something about Islam itself that actionably contributes to middle aged men marrying young girls. If that were true we’d see something in the data to back it up, which, as you’ve observed here, we just don’t. Families with a real shot at providing their daughters with a better life almost invariably do.

        People invoke religion all the time; it hardly means that religion is their actual motivation. In Israel there are religious conservatives who conflate Zionism with Judaism, so that he who opposes the notion of “Eretz Yisreal” opposes all Jews. We don’t let them get away with such a conflation. If someone says, pointing to the proliferation of West Bank settlements, “they won’t ban settlements because they say it’s a crime against Judaism” we would say let them call it what they will; it has no truth in it. The situation with Sharia in Yemen is hardly different.

        The pretext is just a red herring, not worth fighting over, when there are real and obvious causes to address.

        • Well, Turkey was aggressively secularised in the 1920s, and Bosnia has been under a European and Christian cultural yoke for its entire history, so they’re not great examples of places where Islam has been free to express its more extreme ideas, either. However, I agree with you that economic circumstances are the primary driver, and if Yemen were ever to reach Bosnia’s level of affluence, it would have similarly low levels of child marriage.

          I understand your argument, but I still disagree with your conclusion of disregarding religion altogether. To say religion isn’t a cause, factor or motivation at all, and we should understand all human behaviour in economic and political terms, is as extreme and implausible as the converse, that we should attribute everything to religion.

          And since Dawkins doesn’t subscribe to the strawman latter position – he just thinks it’s worth talking about the portion of suffering that religion IS responsible for, because a) no-one else is and most liberal commentators seem determined to ignore/excuse it in favour of the extreme “it’s all economics/politics” view, and b) it’s just ideas so in theory should be susceptible to reason in a way economic imbalance and political grievance isn’t – then I have more sympathy with him than with the Owen Joneses (however good he is on other topics) of the world who are comfortable enough in their own privileged secular bubbles to imagine that religion is of as little consequence to everyone else as it is to them.

          An analogous case is the one cited by Hitchens in God Is Not Great, where a law to ban traditional circumcision of Jewish babies, performed orally by the mohel, which was almost introduced in NY after several babies were infected with herpes and died, was dropped in consideration of religious freedom. I’m guessing the vast majority of cases where very young children are infected with STIs are caused by non-religious sexual abuse, and in terms of bang-for-your-buck, tackling that abuse would save a lot more lives than stopping the occasional disease-ridden Jewish man ritually biting off a baby’s foreskin. But that doesn’t let religion off the hook for having motivated a horribly obscene act, and from having defended future repetitions of it.

          Oh, and “Islamophobic” is such a tiresome accusation. EDL mobs throwing shit at a mosque, because they think the perfectly decent Muslims who worship there have anything to do with bombings? That’s Islamophobic. Speaking out against a set of wrong beliefs which entail some very nasty moral ideas, and sometimes harmful actions? That’s not, and to tar it with the same brush is not only slanderous, but shields those dangerous ideas from the criticism that they deserve, and that all ideas should freely face.

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