Human Rights and Cultural Perspective; First Year Reflection By Ashley Sims

Published: April 5, 2012

Last summer Jamie, my husband, had the privilege of being a groomsman in the wedding of one of his best friends. It was a three-day event. Knowing that I would have a lot of down time that weekend, I grabbed my parents’ National Geographic with the cover page titled “The Birth of Religion,” which is a great story, but not the point of this post. In this edition of National Geographic (June 2011) there was a story titled “Too Young to Wed.” This story was about child brides. This practice spans across social classes, continents, and religions. Sometimes this happens as a business transaction, to settle a debt, or resolve a family feud. Though illegal in most countries, the marrying of young girls is still a cultural practice in many developing countries.

After reading this article I looked out the window and saw everyone setting up for our friends’ wedding. How different. Two people in their mid-twenties, in love, both consenting to spend the rest of their lives married to each other. I have young sisters, ages 8 and 5, and I was horrified at the thought of them being married so young. When we hear stories of child brides being married to men twice their age and sometimes as old as their fathers or grandfathers, being required to have sex and potentially bear a child before their body is ready, it is easy to cast a quick judgment about how terribly wrong it is. But, the issue is complicated.

One of the women who contributed to this article, Cynthia Gorney, was part of Wake Forest University’s series entitled Voices of Our Time. She spoke this past Tuesday night about their research. One story Gorney shared, which is also in the article, was about a 5-year-old girl whose wedding they were able to attend. The grandfather arranged this wedding. He loved his granddaughter very much. He chose a respectable family and the 11-year-old groom was a well-liked boy. The young girl’s aunt also married into this family, so she would not be lonely. In their village there was no school for girls, so there were no other opportunities for her. He felt he was doing a good thing for her, providing for her and making sure she had a protector. She would stay with her own family until she reached puberty and then go to live with her husband’s family. But, not all child marriages are arranged with such loving motives. As I sat and listened to horrendous stories of young girls being forced to marry, I found myself casting judgment on these people and this practice until Gorney said something that caught my attention. During her travels, someone asked her about America, where pornography, prostitution, teenage pregnancy, and single mothers are fairly common. Are we any better at protecting women here?

While there are many ideas still tumbling around in my head about this subject, one thing in particular keeps coming to mind, and it is a topic that has come up more than a few times in my ethics class: objective morality versus subjective morality. This is something I could not help thinking about during the lecture – who gets to determine if something is right or wrong? Afterward, someone asked where the boundary was between human rights and culturally acceptable practices. According to Gorney it is a thin line and not always very obvious. Groups like the U.N. seek to establish certain rights that should be universally applied.

The challenge for me is not accepting an objective morality, but distinguishing between immoral practices and cultural differences. I must remember that just because some cultural practices are different than my own, and just because I cringe when I hear about it, does not certainly make it wrong. Many cultural practices are deeper, more detailed, and more complicated than meets the eye. While I do believe that the marrying of young girls is wrong, I must try and understand different perspectives, and other factors surrounding these marriages – like lack of access to education – so I can seek justice for the oppressed.

Ashley Sims
First Year