Content note: This article contains descriptions of child sexual abuse.
On 21 May 1936, a young Chagga woman called Kekwe was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced at the High Court of Tanganyika (in present-day Tanzania) to fifteen months imprisonment with hard labour. Kekwe had been found guilty of stabbing a man from her community, Ndemfoo, after he had tried to take her to be married to his cousin against her will. At the time, Kekwe’s case became a cause célèbre for British missionaries and feminist activists, leading to parliamentary questions in the British House of Commons and, ultimately, an inquiry into forced marriage practices across British African colonies.
The resulting government White Paper of 1937, however, ultimately minimized the incidence of forced marriage. It suggested that where such marriages occurred, African girls freely appealed to the colonial legal system which took effective action, and therefore no government intervention was needed. Entirely excluding the views of affected women and girls from their considerations, colonial governors (and ultimately the Colonial Office), argued that the issue could only be improved by ‘education’ and ‘enlightenment’.
Although the violent conclusion of Kekwe’s forced marriage brought her case to prominence, the forced and early marriages of African women and girls had been a cause of international and imperial concern since at least the 1920s. These issues continue to vex campaigners and governments today, and the welfare of women and girls in the Global South remains a significant aspect of international human rights and development debates. However, these contemporary debates are suffused with colonial and imperial tropes, resting on ahistorical notions of ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’ rather than understanding violence within its social and historical context. Careful attention to the historical roots of these discussions also demonstrates the silencing of African women’s and girls’ voices and experiences.
The legacies of colonial discussions are readily apparent in current debates. In recent weeks, UNICEF has reported that Africa is ‘home to 130 million child brides’, with the continent having some of the highest global rates of child marriages. Citing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 5 (to ‘achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls’) the report calls for ‘accelerated programmatic efforts and increased domestic resources’ to ensure that the ‘rights of every African child are protected’ from ‘harmful practices’ such as early marriage.
The language of ‘harmful practices’ has been critiqued by scholars such as Chia Longman and Tamsin Bradley as harking back to colonial concerns about static ‘tradition’ and ‘cultural practices’ which were placed in stark opposition to ideas of ‘civilization’. These notions still dominate the discourse around child and early marriages, with the Girls Not Brides initiative, for example, suggesting that child marriage has ‘happened for generations and has become normal’.
Child marriage is conceived of as embedded in the past, but there is little attention to its historical or social context. This obscures the content, dynamics, and social meanings of the practices concerned as well as the ways they have shifted over time and space. Such presentations reproduce colonial-era tropes about African communities as lacking in their own histories and rooted in atavistic custom. ‘Cultural’ explanations also occlude the existence of gender-based violence in the Global North.
Whilst the language of intervention has shifted from ‘enlightenment’ to ‘empowerment’, the influence of colonialism is clear in non-governmental organisations’ (NGOs) programmes to tackle forced and early marriages, commonly understood as forms of sexual violence. The programming is often education-focused, reproducing the colonial-era ideas described above – that education is the remedy to forced and early marriages in the Global South. Here, schools (posited as modernising) are positioned as sites of peace, in contrast to girls’ families (posited as rooted in atavistic ‘tradition’) as sites of conflict – reinscribing Spivak’s critique of colonialism as ‘saving brown women from brown men’.
This juxtaposition also obscures the institutionalised violence that girls and young women may experience in educational settings. A study by Mary Mwangi et al found that, for Kenyan girls aged 13 to 17 who had experienced unwanted sexual touching, 25% reported that the incident occurred at school, whilst the Kenyan Daily Nation newspaper reports that more than 1,200 teachers were dismissed between 2010 and 2019 for sexual abuse of pupils.
As in the 1937 White Paper, where colonial officials argued that girls could appeal to the colonial legal system in cases where they were being forced to marry, the current ’empowerment’ framework expects girls to unambiguously oppose familial oppression by refusing forced and early marriages, and seek alternative futures for themselves, in this case through participation in programmes. As Thais Bessa has argued, this obfuscates global inequalities, structural issues, and material conditions such as poverty that contribute to forced and early marriages, instead individualising resistance to violence and placing the responsibility on girls themselves.
While structural causes of violence are sometimes acknowledged by the international community – for example a recent UN Resolution lists ‘poverty’ and ‘insecurity’ as two of the main contributors to forced and early marriages – the proposed ‘solutions’ do not overhaul unequal global capitalist systems and local power structures that perpetuate violence against women and girls, but rather rely on girls’ own actions. Girls and young women are expected to resist in prescribed ways – through engaging in education, articulating their opposition to forced and early marriages, and accessing legal recourse where that is available. Yet those who do ‘speak out’ are often left to deal with the consequences of their opposition without adequate support. Anastasia Gage has detailed the impact of resistance on girls in Ethiopia, with loneliness and depression being commonly reported. Indeed, as scholars such as Ravi Thiara have shown, resistance to violence can increase the risks of harm to girls and women, as perpetrators of abuse seek to reassert power and control.
While ‘empowerment’ imperatives superficially appear to centre women and girls, there are relatively few studies exploring the views of African women and girls at risk of experiencing forced and early marriages. In NGO reports, the kinds of stories that can be told, and who gets to tell them, are limited. A recent Save the Children publication on strategies aimed at ending child marriage completely excluded girls’ opinions, instead featuring practitioners’ ideas about effective interventions.
Where NGOs do foreground girls’ and young women’s voices, these tend to be ‘success’ stories of ‘speaking out’ – elevating the voices of those girls who challenged their families, prevented unwanted marriages, or effected changes in their communities. As one unnamed girl in Musoma, Tanzania, explained to researchers conducting a 2016 study for the UK-based NGO, FORWARD, ‘in our family we were not allowed to correct our father, and whatever he said, we had to obey him. After the education provided from the project, I can now correct my father…and convince him to change his ideas’. Presenting exemplary narrative stories may justify and attract funding, but also serves to idealise ‘empowered’ girls and construct those whose voices are absent as passive victims of culture — reinforcing perceptions of racialised women as oppressed whilst doing little to address the broader structural issues that drive violence against women and girls.
Finally, to counter common myths that forced and early marriages are an issue only in the Global South, it is important to note that the imperative for girls and young women to speak out as individuals against forced and early marriages does not end at the borders of colonised and postcolonial nation-states. In the UK, where child marriage has only recently been outlawed, girls and young women are expected to seek redress through the criminal legal system. Under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act of 2014, it is a criminal offence to force someone to marry. However, the legislation has been little used, with just two successful convictions. This indicates that the law does not offer adequate recourse for affected women and girls, and scholars such as Aisha Gill have commented that, rather than protecting women and girls, such laws are aimed at ‘regulating the behaviour…of social groups with little political or economic power’, specifically minoritized communities.
Girls and young women face boundaries to ‘speaking out’, given the difficulties of proving violence against women in the criminal legal system, and the strict burden of proof and financial limitations governing who can seek leave to remain under domestic violence legislation. Policy around violence against women and girls as it affects minoritized communities exacerbates violence by establishing categories of ‘deserving’ versus ‘deportable’ women migrants. Reinforcing the idea that policy is motivated by continuing colonialist ideas and the regulation of minority communities rather than the support and protection of women and girls, changes in legislation have come about at precisely the time when services for those affected are being cut by government austerity measures.
Attention to imperial and colonial histories, therefore, provides an essential lens for evaluating current debates over violence against women and girls in the Global South and in minoritized communities in the Global North. Despite claims by bodies like the UN that the ‘empowerment’ agenda strengthens girls’ and women’s ‘voice, agency, leadership, and meaningful participation in all decisions that affect them’, the perspectives of affected communities are often marginalized, and, crucially, such strategies fail to address broader structural inequalities at local, national, and international levels, ultimately serving the interests of dominant powers and inhibiting effective engagements and interventions.