Last September I extolled the virtues of marryyourdaughter.com, an online hoax website that gave early marriage an "American" face, in determining whether, when confronted with images of the practice right here at home, real American adults changed their feelings about early marriage, a common practice in many parts of the world. In that post I said, "it's one thing to know 12 and 14-year-old girls are married off to significantly older men elsewhere; quite another to think about how it would play out here."
The brains behind marryourdaughter.com, John Ordover, was trying to call attention to early marriage in this country. So the website eloquently made his point. Now we have another tragic example.
In what has now become common b-roll footage on the news channels, Texas authorities removed 419 children from the Yearning for Zion ranch this month after a 16-year-old repeatedly called a local family violence shelter asking for help.
Court documents said: "Investigators determined that there is a widespread pattern and practice among the residents of YFZ ranch in which minor female residents are conditioned to expect and accept sexual activity with adult men at the ranch upon being spiritually married to them." Because of what the documents called "pervasive pattern of indoctrinating and grooming" girls to accept marriage and motherhood at young ages, the authorities determined that all the girls were in danger of abuse.
When child marriage occurs in other parts of the world, we tend to think of it as merely a common societal practice. In Texas authorities had to physically remove children because – it is becoming clear – early marriage in the United States is typically a result of brainwashing and abuse. Why would a young girl choose to enter into a marriage with a middle-aged man if she believed she had a choice? Indeed, why would she, either here or anywhere in the world?
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The very thought of what the girls at Yearning for Zion ranch in Colorado were subjected to infuriates me and taps into such a deep vein of emotion that I am at a loss for words. As the mother of a girl child, it pains me deeply to think of my daughter ever having to experience such abuse. I feel the instinctive need to protect girls less privileged than mine against predators. And then my anger stems from outrage that this could happen in a country where there are clear laws and overwhelming norms of conduct that decry such practices.
Last September I noted that teenage marriage isn't likely to become part of a national debate (though the issue of unmarried teens having sex will surely continue to stand between common sense and moralistic rants). I thought that was because, in the United States, we can't seem to grasp the fact that early marriage is not about two crazy kids in love. It is both a symptom and a cause of women's lower status and the societal problems that accompany it.
While I'm happy to say that I think that we Americans now have a sense of what early marriage really entails, I'm sorry that we had to find it in our midst for this realization to occur. I'm very sorry that so many young girls were victimized before we learned the truth.
The world over, early marriage almost always means less education, more limited opportunities and usually economic insecurity for girls. Girls who marry early also have a disproportionately higher risk of maternal death. It is all horrific.
In societies where girls are married off early, the tradition tends to continue unless some dramatic social or economic changes occur. Let's hope that we've seen that dramatic change here. Let's channel our better understanding into a deeper understanding of the societal forces that constrain women and girls everywhere. To move forward, we must all feel and understand common universal realities and have the strength to transform them for women.