Months have now passed since the Islamist terrorist organization Boko Haram sparked international outrage by kidnapping at least 270 Nigerian school girls. In a rambling one hour video, the group’s supposed leader explained their actions to the world:
"I abducted your girls…I will sell them in the market, by Allah. I will sell them off and marry them off. There is a market for selling humans…Women are slaves. I want to reassure my Muslim brothers that Allah says slaves are permitted in Islam…I will marry off a woman at the age of 12. I will marry off a girl at the age of nine…”
Most of the media coverage has understandably focused on the apparent inability of the Nigerian government to rescue the girls, who were students at a Western-style boarding school. But the evil act also shined the light on two horrifying practices: child marriage and polygamy. For those of us who have lived our entire lives in societies that do not tolerate such things, the fact that they are still commonly practiced in some parts of the world is almost unimaginable.
In ancient times, including eras described in the Bible, both polygamy and child marriage were widely accepted. The practices were largely influenced by the shorter human lifespan (depending on one’s location, life expectancy may have been between 20 and 40 years), as well as the high incidence of women dying during childbirth. However, as the centuries passed medical technology and better nutrition extended the human life span and made childbirth much safer. And so the overwhelming majority of societies (particularly those influenced by Judaism and Christianity) outlawed marriage before puberty and marriage to more than one wife.
Such practices remain widespread, however, in some Muslim countries as well as the Sahel region of Africa (the semi-arid strip just below the Sahara), where experts estimate half of all women live in polygamous households. Furthermore, according to the relief organization UNICEF, many African countries still have shockingly high rates of child marriage. In Niger, 75 percent of girls are married before the age of 18. In Chad, it’s 72 percent and in Mali 71 percent, while well over half of girls marry as children in the Central African Republic and Mozambique. UNICEF estimates that at least 70,000 child brides die each year due to childbearing complications.
Bishop Harry Jackson is chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, MD, and co-authored, Personal Faith, Public Policy [FrontLine; March 2008] with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.