The house was of its kind in the world: blocky red brick, stout shoulders, three stories built in seasons when money came in and stalled when money dried up. One wing waited, half-built, a concrete-encrusted wheelbarrow forgotten at its flank, glazed with rainwater and pecked at by the proverbial chickens. The roof lay flat beneath the valley sky and the children ran to its tarpaper stage trailing homemade kites: little birds made of crisp white paper that dampened and dried as mists and sun rolled in.
The house and its gardens stood in the trees just off a dirt road winding down from Kathmandu’s suburban tangle. This was nearly twenty years ago, so perhaps the city has swelled down this road, multiplying the ragged brick-and-concrete storefronts, sequestering the ancient wooden shops and stalls that clung to the dirt road like tiny, listing castles from some fairytale age, when every lintel bore an artisan’s intricate carvings and every corner held a puja altar at which, in my memory, young fathers still paused each morning, hair freshly oiled and lungis freshly tied, little daughters perched in their arms as they bore plates of flowers to a goddess.
In that time and place, the house was a palace, and I could never tell how many people lived in its rooms. It seemed there was always an ancient manservant materializing in the garden, obsequious and wizened, or a new girl cousin at the gate, arriving to relieve an exiting niece of her domestic duties. One afternoon, I turned a corner into an unknown wing and discovered the two grandmothers—one senile, one with her wits—holding hands as a flock of little girls swirled past them. I learned later that the women had once been rivals: the two wives of one man, the first jilted for the second. Now they lived together in a narrow whitewashed room with a garden window and a pair of neat twin beds.
The house was and had been many things: a family compound, a women’s shelter, and now, a waystation for the daughters of human trafficking survivors who were not yet ready for family reunification. It was also the kind of catch-all orphanage that horrifies Western child protection practitioners, but endures: a home where children suddenly show up when fathers die or drink too much, or when mothers cannot afford to buy rice. Many of the girls had—or believed they were waiting for—living mothers, fathers, and siblings, and their families resurrected in their songs and stories.
At command of the palace stood a charismatic Matriarch and a steady, dark-eyed Patriarch who, when we were in the city, liked to ask the family driver to stop the car so he could snip a cutting from a blooming tree or a trumpet-studded vine. His domain was the garden, with its flowers, vegetables, and exotic grass carpet; hers was the brimming home and the non-profit organization that buoyed it. They were a merge of two types I would find again and again, in other countries and cities: Christian converts whose new religion conferred a Western cache and a financial bolster, and non-governmental organization founders whose charity functioned, for better or worse, as a family fiefdom.
I, too, was of a type: a young American woman flying on a pastiche of journalism and international development jobs, and an Evangelical Christian grappling with the abuses, successes, and practical grassroot wins accomplished in alliances between global development actors and local faith leaders of all sects. I had met the Matriarch on a previous Kathmandu trip and, intrigued by her faith-informed work and her home’s warm tumble, I offered myself as a pro bono consultant with links to U.S. media, funders, and advocacy networks.
This is how I came to spend a summer in their menagerie, darting off with the Matriarch to morning meetings with U.N. staffers, government officials, and anti-trafficking advocates, then coming home in the late afternoons to play on the roof or in the courtyard with the little girls and the grandson, the palace prince.
The prince’s young mother—a black-haired daughter-in-law—was assigned to serve me at solitary midday meals. I remember these meals as one might remember a bathing ritual, frank and solicitous. The daughter-in-law called me to the kitchen, alone. I entered and with averted eyes she pulled out a chair at the table. I sat down uneasily and she swept away, returning with a steaming plate of rice, bitter gourd, and meat, and a silver cup of dal. She set these before me and swept back to the stove, assuming a kind of military gaze: eyes askance, dignified, alert. When I finished, my place was cleared and cleaned and the Patriarch or his sons entered and ate, boisterous and laughing as she moved silently among them.
I had rarely eaten alone—and never with a silent observer. I tried to talk to her; she replied in clipped, polite English. I think of our awkward early tableau and I remember the heroine of the salt and love fairytale: the banished princess who steals away with a handkerchief full of jewels she cannot help but slip onto her fingers while she toils in a servant girl’s disguise. Aradhana (the names of the people involved have been changed) bore this kind of carriage: dutiful and assiduous, but above her work. Away from the kitchen, she was commanding, bossy. Even standing silently at the stove, she bore the erect air of a privileged woman.
Later, she would step closer as I spoke. One day, she would sit down beside me as I ate the meal she had cooked. She would not eat with me, and I see now that even taking a chair at the table was at once a transgression and a resumption of her doubled identity. Perhaps we were at the kitchen table the day we talked about my forthcoming wedding—a relief for Aradhana and everyone in the house, given their concern over my “advanced” age of twenty-five—and she brought out a sheaf of snapshots revealing who she truly was: a high-caste Hindu wed at the age of 15 or 16 in an illegal child marriage to a Christian boy, whose parents allowed a love match that briefly severed Aradhana from her own mother and father.
The kitchen table vaults Aradhana and me to another table, almost ten years later, in the absurdly unexpected cavern of an American mall food court. She and her husband live in the United States now, but he has taken another wife in a Hindu ceremony at a temple back in Nepal. The second wife is poised to emigrate, so I have driven through the night to accompany Aradhana to the worn gray hold of a windowless courtroom, where a lawyer lodges her civil divorce petition before her husband and a harried judge. Then we decamp to the neutral zone of the mall food court, where husband and wife sit face-to-face, flanked by their two sons, me, and a few young Nepali men: cousins and friends, their handsome golden faces stony and half-sick at the negotiations before them.
Aradhana had arrived at the courthouse in a blazing color—a magenta or pink or yellow sari, its waves singed with gold thread—defiantly refusing to meet her husband’s gaze. Now, at the worn food court table, she meets and challenges him, accusing and demanding and gesturing, her glass bangles slinging up and down her arms.
A member of the male entourage slips out for a desperate cigarette. I shuffle the boys away to a far table and run for plates of pizza. But someone’s speaker phone blares up and we cannot help but hear the Matriarch and Patriarch’s tinned pleas, funneled across the world. They speak in Nepali so I cannot tell if their design is to save the marriage or save face, but Aradhana will have none of it.
She shouts and the shrill rise of her voice takes me to the long-ago summer of my visit: our third floor bedrooms banked each other, and one night I heard her cry out not in pain but in a mourner’s rage, her sobs echoing down through the dark courtyard and the garden’s shifting branches. I did not understand all she said, but I knew from the tone of her voice and a few English words that she was crying out to God: the gods of her childhood or the god of her husband’s home, I was not sure.
Now her children sit before me: the little prince who flew kites on the roof, a brooding teenager almost the same age as his mother on her wedding day; and his baby brother, the prize citizen born on U.S. soil. They eat miserably, understanding every bitter word echoed under the food court’s pocked skylights, and I fail to cheer them.
Child marriage endures as a civil observance, a tribal tradition, and a religious rite spanning all major sects. Most policy experts define child marriage as a union in which one or more parties are under the age of eighteen and, therefore, children unable to give free and full consent to marry. It is not unusual for child marriage to unite girls as young as ten or twelve to men decades older than them, although child marriages are often brokered between boys and girls—and global estimates find that about 20% of girls and 3% of boys are married as children. In situations when two teenagers marry—as in my friend’s experience—even the most well-intentioned young people may find their physical strength and personal maturity outstripped by the responsibilities of nurturing a marriage, raising children, providing for a family, and navigating extended family relationships.
In its more devious forms, child marriage disguises sex-trafficking schemes, fosters greater incidences of marital violence, and dispatches girls to toil as little more than unpaid domestic laborers in their husbands’ homes. Hastening girls’ adolescent bodies into pregnancy, it can put them at greater risk of obstetric fistula or death. It usually carries the practical consequence of ending girls’ formal education, perpetuating cycles of illiteracy that can endanger a girl’s health and the health of her children, and curtailing the basic intellectual, creative, and personal development available through primary and secondary schooling. Boys may suffer a similar fate when it comes to education, as they are generally forced to drop out of school at marriage so that they can begin working full-time—often in insecure, low-wage jobs that entrench them and their families in poverty.
Child marriage can be a response to financial need and food insecurity, or, more crassly, a way for a family to reduce the number of mouths it must feed and minds it must educate. Families may use it to stem adolescents’ real or perceived extra-marital sexual behavior, or to protect girls from sexual predators. Major environmental, political, and economic crises—such as South Asia’s cyclical cyclones, the Syrian and Rohingya refugee crises, and COVID-19‘s economic fall-out—intensify all of these pressures.
But many families choose child marriage as a matter of honor and tradition, and underlying cultural norms regarding gender, ascent from childhood to adulthood, and the nature of marriage predispose a family—in crisis or not—to groom their children for marriage.
Longstanding cultural rites of passage—such as Female Genital Mutilation, girls’ sexual initiation camps, and Southern African boys’ Ulwaluko rites, all of which confirm children’s swift, often puberty-timed ascent to adulthood and attendant responsibilities of marriage and procreation—witness to tribal traditions’ power to fortify beliefs that adulthood is wholly defined by biology, and that marriage and parenthood validate biological adulthood.
Religious faith plays a significant role in shaping gender, ascent, and marriage norms, although syncretism between local tribal religions—often the guardians of aforementioned cultural rites—and major global religions can make it difficult to parse distinct streams of influence.
While there is limited academic research confirming a direct causal relationship between faith adherence and child marriage—an issue often intertwined with matters of economic class and urban-rural divides—religious leaders of both local and global faiths are among the most influential child marriage gatekeepers, per their pastoral powers to enforce gender and ascent norms and their authority to officiate marriages. Of importance here, too, in both local and global religions, is the frequent link between religious authority structures and patriarchal misogyny, which can complicate orthodox adherents’ efforts to live out their faith and seek the flourishing of both men and women, boys and girls.
In the civil forum, the United Nations and Western governments and philanthropists often lead and fund efforts urging countries to ratify child marriage-related international conventions, protocols, and charters, and to adopt laws setting the marriage age at 18. Still, nations, provinces, and states—including some areas of the United States—may set marriageable age as low as twelve or fourteen, with parental consent or judicial approval clauses that trump age requirements altogether. In both the West and the majority world, it is not uncommon to see conflict between civil laws governing marriageable age, age of majority, age of sexual consent, and statutory rape.
In countries where cultural or religious traditions remain robust, often accompanied by enduring tribal or religious juridical structures, civil marriage may be seen as the domain of nation-states rooted in colonial structures and bound to neo-colonial global governance schemes. On the other hand, tribal or religious marriage may be regarded as “true” marriage, the provenance of ancient cultures whose transcendent roots propel them to outlive and outlast fleeting nations. Even if a country adopts a marriage age of 18, tribal and religious leaders—often aided by sympathizers in civil bureaucratic, police, and judicial structures—may continue to celebrate or ignore child marriages.
The schisms and interplay between civil marriage, as governed by civil codes, and tribal or religious marriage, as governed by cultural or faith traditions, highlight the uneasy stalemate often struck between Western change-makers, majority-world leaders and civil actors, and wary grassroots communities. While child marriage is decreasing, the fact remains that nearly 12 million girls are expected to marry every year in communities where civil laws and international policies pale in comparative power to cultural and religious norms regarding gender, ascent, and marriage.
Significantly, the twenty countries with the highest prevalence of child marriage for girls are highly religious Sub-Saharan African and South Asian countries, eleven of which are predominantly Christian and eight of which are predominantly Muslim. The twenty countries with the highest prevalence of child marriage for boys span the globe from Oceania to Sub-Saharan Africa to the Middle East; fourteen of these countries are predominantly Christian and four are predominantly Muslim. According to the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project, of the Christian countries in the top ranks for child marriage incidence among both boys and girls, the narrow majority are predominantly Catholic—which may be a useful lever in addressing global child marriage incidence.
Compared to Protestant sects, Catholicism maintains a more robust and coherent juridical structure, with a Code of Canon Law valid across the globe, mediated by a system of ecclesiastical courts beholden to national Bishops and, ultimately, the Holy See. While interpretation and application of Canon Law may vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, it remains a brooding, present standard that may be appealed to or queried in grassroots, national, and international fora, especially in matters pertaining to Catholicism’s seven sacraments—one of which is marriage.
Canon Law’s marriage age remains surprisingly low: Canon 1083 sets it as 16 years of age for boys and 14 years of age for girls, a standard most recently revised in 1917, where 1917 Code of Canon Law Canon 1067 changed a longstanding law allowing both sexes to marry at twelve years of age. The Church had an opportunity to reconsider marriage age when preparing the 1983 Code of Canon Law, but chose to retain the 1917 standards and add only a provision allowing Bishops to raise local marriage age, as appropriate to regional customs. Notably, 1983’s Canon 1055 introduced language whose sequence emphasized the personalist nature of marriage as ordered “to the good of the spouses”—a sequence that some have argued subtly aids in eroding the Church’s official, magisterial teaching on marriage’s primary ends of procreation and education of children, and its subordinate ends of mutual help and spousal well-being.
While the orthodox personalist aspect of marriage may be torqued to progressive ends in discussions of divorce and contraception, it can and should be fully applied in a reconsideration of Canon Law’s marriage age, which rightly acknowledges the pivotal connection between puberty and ascent, and the reality that the biological capacity to create new life is a unique and powerful marker of human maturity. Canon Law’s marriage age does not, however, reflect the well-developed Catholic belief that human maturity encompasses not only the body, but also the spirit and the soul.
“A Meditation on Givenness,” St. Pope John Paul II’s poetic, precise distillation of his body of thought on personalism and Theology of the Body, states that “Only someone who has dominion over himself can become a sincere gift for others” and, likewise, receive another in the mutual “entrustment” of the most intimate human relationships—relationships which must always proceed from a “loving predilection” that guards against “the urge to take possession of the other and use him.”
Capacities of self-dominion, self-gift, and mutual entrustment are matters of maturity. In a discussion of child marriage, they converge in the issue of ascent from childhood to adulthood. What constitutes a practical and theologically sound terminal at which young people, parents, and the Church may appraise an adolescent’s competence and readiness in these vital powers, which, ideally, must be piqued and formed so that a young man or woman may wisely discern marriage, priesthood, or religious orders?
One straightforward option can be drawn from Canon Law’s age of majority. Canons 97 and 98, respectively, state that a person “who has completed the eighteenth year of age has reached majority,” and that having crossed this threshold, a person “has full exercise of his or her rights”. At eighteen years of age, the vast majority of young people have attained sexual maturity and are biologically capable of procreation, without the heightened health risks girls may face with pregnancies at younger stages of physical development. And by this age, young people with consistent access to schooling are often able to complete both primary and secondary education (or a combination of academic and practical work experience), giving them a more solid foundation for the personal, social, and professional responsibilities of adulthood—including, for many, the nurturing and education of their own children.
Defining a confluence between age of majority and marriage age may also encourage pastors, families, and communities to attend more seriously to Canon 1114 and the matter of free consent, and to more readily deter or delay marriages in which one party—generally, a bride who is significantly younger than a groom—may not have the maturity or confidence to challenge a well-intentioned or manipulative betrothal.
While parents, pastors, and canonists around the world may prudently observe that many eighteen-year-olds are not yet mature enough to marry, others in the Catholic Church’s wide-ranging global community may chafe at what they perceive as an unnecessary delay. And voices within the Church in the West, where cultural norms regarding generational divorce, professional pursuits, and noncommittal dating can encourage marriage delay into the thirties and beyond, may decry any Church approval of late-teenage weddings. Setting Canon Law marriage age at 18 could strike a compromise between these factions and, in harmonizing age of majority and marriage age, encourage those curtailing adolescence and those extending it to consider the true nature of adulthood. And it could better prepare Catholics to engage thoughtfully and coherently in growing discussions regarding the sexualization of children in media and the retooling of civil laws addressing age of sexual consent, statutory rape, and sexual offender registries.
Back to the American food court, with its glazed skylights, sad little boys, and sparring husband and wife. It must have been early fall, gauging from the slightly sultry Southern light and heat outside the mall—perhaps a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving and Diwali. So it was a few months after my own civil divorce had been declared, and within the year I still wore my wedding band and lived by my first married name, waiting with a convert’s innocence for a Catholic marriage tribunal to review the sacramentality of my Protestant marriage bond. I did not explain this to Aradhana, who for understandable reasons mistrusted Christian authority figures, and so she likely assumed that I was still married in both the civil and religious sense.
Aradhana and I met again at her brother and sister-in-law’s apartment in the suburbs of the city where I lived. It was Bhai Tika, the Diwali festival day when sisters honor their brothers with a red tika mark on the forehead and gifts of sweets. The little plates of sandalwood paste, flowers, and candles were ready when I arrived, and we knelt together in the living room while Aradhana performed the rite. I could see in her face the relief of esteeming her brother, a man who loved her.
Later, the four of us sat on the bedroom floor and talked. There was a sense in the room that Aradhana and I were linked in a unique way, now: not just in friendship but in our fates. “There has never been any divorce, ever, in our family, in all the generations,” her brother said soberly. I could not say the same for myself, representing as I did my family’s third successive generation of divorce. I tried to explain this, but Aradhana interrupted. “You have been the good wife,” she insisted, clutching my hands. “He will come back to you.”
Was it true: had I been a good wife? Even before I turned toward the Catholic Church, I had harbored a primal sense of marriage’s sacramentality: its permanence like a cord set physically in my body, so that my grandparents’ and parents’ divorces registered with confounding, dizzying knocks. I had grown up, left home, forged a life and achievements separate from my muddled family line, and I had waited until well into my twenties to marry. But I knew that only a prolonged separation from my first husband had compelled me to consider, in words I would not have used at the time, that entrustment to him presumed my own self-dominion, and self-dominion came at the necessary, lancing cost of repentance and forgiveness—a cost no one had taught me, and one that I had struggled to learn.
Sitting together on the floor by the bed, her skin and hair giving off a sweet, ebbing scent of sandalwood and wax, neither Aradhana nor I knew that neither of our first husbands would return. “You will see,” she said, indignant on my behalf, gripping my fingers firmly, touching my face. “You will see.” I let her comfort me because I knew, if I accepted it, she would let me comfort her.