So I recently had a drink with a friend who works in the non-profit world in NZ. I asked if her organization works much with trafficking. She said she didn’t think so except that they do come across marriage trafficking. But because of the nature of marriage trafficking and their clientele, she couldn’t say how frequently it happened.
This, of course, begged the obvious question from me: What is marriage trafficking?
She explained it was when a girl is brought from another country to a different country for the purposes of marriage in which they have little or no say in whom they marry, and they have no way out of the marriage if the man ends up to be an abuser. Some communities find it more shameful to take back a woman after marriage. Sometimes families or communities have been given a dowry that they can’t afford to pay back to the man or his family and it would mean financial ruin and shame for them.
This was a bit of a shocker for me. Not that this happens in general. I lived in Nepal for 10 years and I’ve heard these stories over and over again. I just hadn’t heard about bringing women to the developed world to do this except on television shows. And it didn’t quite hit home till then that communities could be so closed that even in the developed world, where these girls would be afforded so many more rights under law, girls would still be trapped in an abusive, arranged marriage half way across the world from home.
It also turns out that often these girls are under age. While it was normal to see a girl married off at 15 in villages in Nepal, that’s not commonly done here. And while I did not find it an abusive practice in Nepal, it does seem much more of a murky process here. In Nepal, an arranged marriage is just an arranged marriage. Many of my friends have had arranged marriages and while it wouldn’t have suited me, I don’t find it to be a completely bizarre practice for loving parents to vet the future husband of their daughter very thoroughly. A girl married at 15 in Nepal is often just a girl taken care of by a new family for practical reasons such as, poverty, lack of educational opportunities, etc. It is not necessarily a girl trapped into marriage. This led to an interesting conversation around how NZ could close a gap in legislation that they currently are refusing to close.
In NZ the legal age for marriage is 16 with parental consent and 18 without parental consent. In the developing world it can be normal for a girl of 13 to be married. Granted she’d be from a rural context most often, not from a city. She often wouldn’t have a school handy to continue her education. Her life expectancy would be much lower because of health care and the added physical stresses of rural, often farming, life. But in NZ, with better and more regular health care, opportunities for education, and a longer life expectancy, it would make a lot more sense to see her finish at least her high school education if not university without having to think about family life. And the thing is, although it’s not legal to get married before 16, if it happens there is no way to prosecute the adult for taking away her chance to have more than just family and kids. Of course, family and kids are wonderful and a blessing. But is it fair to expect and in fact demand only that from any girl? I personally think not. Even as a wife and mother of two beautiful children, I would never expect so little of myself or any other woman and would never take away all the choices of any woman besides marriage and children.
In one horrible case that my friend shared, the girl was 13, raped by a community member, married to the community member to eradicate her shame (don’t get me started), and then at 20 decided to speak out about her life. Her community turned on her and again asked why she was bringing shame to the community. This idea that the victim brings shame on themselves or on their community needs to be eradicated. And this is not just a developing world problem. I truly believe this is one of the building blocks to believing women are nothing more than property. Often in the developed world it’s not okay any more to talk of women or children like that. But look at our rape cases and you will see that the seeds of this idea are still present. Look at our politicians’ reluctance to change law to make it illegal for an adult to be married to a child. We have a long way to go. And the first step is to know what’s happening in our own backyard. The next steps for most of us is probably to go out and lobby the government to adopt policies that protect women and children, vulnerable and innocent. And the other thing is to make sure in our thought life, that we are not even allowing the seeds of these thoughts to take root. And when we encounter them in our spheres that we graciously challenge those around us to healthier thought patterns. A victim is never to blame for what happened to them. They are not to blame for feeling powerless to change their circumstances. They are not to blame for wanting to leave their circumstances. They are not to blame for speaking up and speaking out. Period. Hoping for more health and more healing in the future for all those impacted by these horrible processes.