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Child ‘Marriage’ Has No Fit With The International Day Of The Girl: Eleanor Rathbone (1934) and Iranian Law (2021)

October 10, 2021

11 October 2012 was the first annual date of the International Day of the Girl. This date, confirmed by the United Nations on 19 December 2011, arose from the work of Plan International in Canada, focusing on issues faced by girls around the world and how to resolve them.
One such critical issue is Child Marriage, a practice which has for at least a century been acknowledged to cause enormous harm (especially to girls and babies). But still it continues in South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa, and, yes, even in some modern first world nations.

There are various views about what constitutes ‘child’ marriage, but the general consensus is that it comprises marriage before the age of 18.  Let’s start our consideration of it with the suffragist Eleanor Rathbone. From there we shall move to reports of child marriage in the USA and in Britain, and on to continuing overt Iranian judicial justifications for it in 2020-21.

Eleanor Rathbone (1872 – 1946)
The Social Sciences building in the University of Liverpool is named for Eleanor Rathbone

– and that is where I was working, in the Department of Sociology, in the mid-1980s. Rathbone had significant influence in Liverpool both civically and academically.  Yet as I – a strong feminist then researching teenage pregnancy – walked past her portrait on the way to my office every day, I had no idea that Eleanor had campaigned long and hard nationally and internationally to stop child ‘marriage’ in India.

My ignorance can I hope be forgiven.  In the absence of other information – or indeed the internet – most of us knew Eleanor Rathbone only as a determined advocate for family allowances and support for the poor and those without power, especially women, and as the first woman City Councillor in Liverpool.

Until we began to investigate further in 2009, in the run-up to the centenary of her election to Liverpool City Council, however, few of us realised that Eleanor Rathbone’s contributions to civil society and (inter-)national politics were far more than that.  It was only then that I discovered that she, as an MP, had spoken urgently in Westminster about female ‘circumcision’ (FGM), and that in 1934 she presented her report on child marriage in India to British Parliamentarians.

Eleanor Rathbone’s report is still available, as a book first published in 1934, and entitled Child Marriage: The Indian Minotaur (see above). Rathbone explains her reference to the Minotaur thus:

As a symbol of evil, I have chosen the mythical Minotaur, to whom the Athenians were compelled to pay yearly tribute of seven youths and seven maidens till Theseus slew the monster, and my last chapter is in effect a challenge to the women of India to play the part of Theseus. (p.10)

We might now challenge the idea that the ‘women of India’ could be responsible for slaying the Minotaur – and Rathbone herself, whilst hoping that in their maturity Indian child brides together could move towards change, also demands that others likewise take up this challenge – but the point here is that, thanks to Eleanor Rathbone and her supporters, political awareness of why child marriage should end extends over the entire past century.

Even back one hundred years ago there was a clear understanding that child marriage in India (and e.g. forced marriage in Palestine, against which Rathbone campaigned) was – and indeed still is – a cruel fate for children, mostly girls, and young women, who thereby not ‘only’ have their (and their babies’) personal safety and physical and mental health endangered, but are also denied opportunities to gain an adequate education or to have choices about their futures.

Legal ages around the world for marriage
As we noted above re first world nations (Pew Center Marriage Laws around the Worldwell worth a careful read) the age at which a person may marry varies widely depending on where s/he lives; and it may also be different for girls and women than for boys and men.  In some countries parental (or judicial) consent may enable earlier marriage than could otherwise occur.

Likewise, legal sanctions for age-inappropriate marriage are very different in different places. In some places bride price is an important factor in what is really the sale, usually by her father, of a girl to a man (or, by arrangement for the future, to a boy); this is one example of Patriarchy Incarnate, not least if the sale price is predicated on the ‘purity’ of the bride, often ‘proven’ by her having undergone female genital mutilation. Dowries – the funds and/or goods which a bride brings to her marriage – are also often important.

It is striking that in some of the most ‘advanced’ nations the age of permitted marriage – if actually specified at all (unbelievably, it is still not, e.g., in some USA states) – is lower than in some more recently emerging economically developed countries, albeit there remain parts of the world where the norm continues to be marriage before the age of 18.

Perhaps in some first world locations the toleration of a lower age is in part because legislation in the ‘first world’ was instituted earlier on, and low ages for marriage were one way to legitimise babies who would otherwise have been born ‘out of wedlock‘ – a situation which in some societies was / is a source of great social shame? And, perhaps even more significantly, babies born to unmarried parents may leave questions unanswered about future inheritance and legacies.  Economics underlies almost all embedded social practices, as a consideration of FGM demonstrates.

Contemporary age-for-marriage rationales 
It might be thought that modern understandings of the perils of marriage for children / very young people would bring about legislation to protect them.  Sadly, this does not always seem to be the case.

Social mores about illegitimacy etc. still hold sway in many places (hence for instance the moral panic about teenage pregnancy in Britain in the 1970s and 80s) and many aspects of overt patriarchy, both generally and in terms of faith / religion, might be thought to be at play in continuing the subordinancy via early marriage of girls and women to men. Established understandings die hard.

In 2021 in England and Wales under-18 marriage is in some circumstances still legal, and in Scotland not even parental permission is required, once the permitted age of 16 – also the UK’s age of consent – is reached.  (NB The age of consent is not everywhere – e.g. in Tanzania –  the same as the age at which parents may agree that a girl be married.)

We Brits are amongst those western nations perhaps not as yet best placed to tell the rest of the world how to conduct its public health strategies in relation to the wellbeing and sexual health of children and young people; for some politicians who could do far more to protect and nurture our young people the sticking points may be tradition and moralistic squeamishness about sexual relationships, and for others perhaps even a reluctance to promote a permitted marriageable age of 18 because they favour votes at 16 – as if a gentle easing into the adult world of political engagement is remotely equivalent to the brutality of vulnerability because of very early marriage.

Likewise, but even moreso in the USA.  It comes as a surprise to many to learn that several American states have no legal restrictions on age at marriage, and others permit girls to marry at 12, 13 or 14.  On the other hand, however, the past quarter-century, since 1998, has seen the emergence in some parts of the USA of ‘purity balls’, where fathers pledge to protect their daughters, who in return pledge to remain virgins (‘pure’) until they marry.  The parallels here with traditional practices elsewhere stretching back millennia, where ‘purity’ is ‘guaranteed’ by FGM and other similar arrangements must be noted, albeit further consideration is for another time.

Child marriage in Iran
It has long been understood that some communities, many of them faith-based, seek to enlarge their population by discouraging (or forbidding) contraception, but recently evidence has emerged that in at least one country child marriage is also explicitly condoned for that reason.

The UK Government’s Country Policy and Information Note. Iran: Women – Early and forced marriage provides much formal information about the situation in Iran regarding this topic, and my colleague Kameel Ahmady’s recent books, An Echo of Silence; Comprehensive Research Study on Early Child Marriage ( full text) and House with Open Door extend this formal reporting to illustrate the lived experience of young people in Iran at a time of complexity and challenges, with the imposition of strict Sharia law and its impact especially on women.

To my knowledge the most illuminating legal passage on child marriage in Iran (Kameel Ahmady wanted girls’ marriageable age to be raised from 13 to 15) is however to be found within the judgement issued by the Islamic court on Ahmady when in 2020 he was found guilty of a range of alleged national security misdemeanours:

Generally, it can be said that increasing the age of marriage for children is one of the strategies of the enemy for weakening and ruining the family system; and that Mr Kameel Ahmady is one of the leaders in the implementation of this strategy in Iran. According to our investigations, should this project be performed, it would lead to a decrease of 100000 marriages and also reduce 20% of the reproduction rate in Iran that would have been disaster in the current situation of Iran, faced with the population crisis.

Even more recently, in August 2021 Radio Free Europe reported that

According to the Statistics Center of Iran, the marriage rate of girls aged 10-14 last year increased by 10.5 percent compared to 2019.

It says 31,379 girls in that age bracket were married in 2020 compared to 28,373 cases the previous year.

The legal age for marriage in Iran is 13 years for girls and 15 years for boys, though it is acceptable for children younger to be married with a father’s permission.

The statistics for child marriages are only those that were officially registered with the Civil Registry Office. The actual number is believed to be higher as many such marriages are unregistered.

The Statistics Center of Iran reported that about 5 percent of all the registered marriages in Iran in 2020 involved children under the age of 15.

From these two commentaries it could be concluded that the Iranian state is actively seeking to increase rates of child marriage and motherhood at a very early age.

Such a position is extremely concerning.   Those pronatalists who encourage the birth of babies to very young mothers have presumably failed to factor in the suffering and costs to both mother and child (and their families / the wider economy) of dangerously premature pregnancy and birth; and they also thereby demonstrate a disregard for the human rights and the potentials of young women who should be engaged in education rather maternity.

The lesson for Iran, should it ever start to listen, is that early marriage and parenthood is a massively mistaken strategy for a strong and healthy population.

And the lesson for the rest of us is that we may never assume that progress towards a better and fairer world is linear. Vigilance is unceasingly required.

Focusing on child marriage
We have moved a long way since Eleanor Rathbone conducted her fierce personal campaigns to protect girls and young women whose lives were controlled almost entirely by men; much wider educational opportunities for many of us, together now with the ubiquitous world wide web and instant newsfeeds, have equipped huge numbers to stand up and be counted on issues around human rights, patriarchy and, quite simply, human happiness and good health.

The 11th of October, the International Day of the Girl, is an opportunity for all men and women who care to focus with renewed vigour on the challenges still to be met in our efforts to promote the well-being and futures of our daughters, granddaughters and global sisters, for the betterment of everyone.

Read more about Child, Early and Forced Marriage and Female Genital Mutilation

Read more about Iran

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Your Comments on this topic are welcome.  
Please post them in the box which follows these announcements…..

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Books by Hilary Burrage on female genital mutilation

18.04.12 FGM books together IMG_3336 (3).JPG

Eradicating Female Genital Mutilation: A UK Perspective (Hilary Burrage, Ashgate / Routledge 2015).
Full contents and reviews   HERE.

FEMALE MUTILATION: The truth behind the horrifying global practice of female genital mutilation  (Hilary Burrage, New Holland Publishers 2016).
Full contents and reviews   HERE.


There is a free FGM hotline for anyone in the UK: 0800 028 3550, or

Details of NHS Specialist Services for FGM here.

More info and posts on FGM here.

Activists, service providers and researchers may like to join the LinkedIn group Female Genital Mutilation (FGM): Information, reports and research, which has several hundred members from around the world.

The (free) #NoFGM Daily News carries (unedited) reports of items shared on Twitter that day about FGM – brings many organisations and developments into focus.

Also available to follow at no cost or obligation is the #NoFGM_USA Daily News.

Twitter accounts:
@NoFGM_UK  @NoFGMBookUK @FemaleMutlnBook  @FGMStatement  @NoFGM_USA @NoFGM_Kenya  @NoFGM_France  [tag for all: #NoFGM] and @StopMGM.

Facebook page#NoFGM – a crime against humanity


Email: Hilary @  Twitter@HilaryBurrage  LinkedInHilary Burrage


[NB The Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children, which has a primary focus on FGM, is clear that in formal discourse any term other than ‘mutilation’ concedes damagingly to the cultural relativists – though the terms employed may of necessity vary in informal discussion with those who by tradition use alternative vocabulary. See the Feminist Statement on the Naming and Abolition of Female Genital Mutilation,  The Bamako Declaration: Female Genital Mutilation Terminology and the debate about Anthr/Apologists on this website.]


This article concerns approaches to the eradication specifically of FGM.  I am also categorically opposed to MGM, but that is not the focus of this particular piece, except in the specifics as discussed above.

Anyone wishing to offer additional comment on more general considerations around infant and juvenile genital mutilation is asked please to do so via these relevant dedicated threads.

Discussion of the general issues re M/FGM will not be published unless they are posted on these dedicated pages. Thanks.

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