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Author and activist Sally Armstrong, left, and Globe and Mail columnist Sarah Hampson
Author and activist Sally Armstrong, left, and Globe and Mail columnist Sarah Hampson

The observers

The trouble with marriage Add to ...

Read the previous day's exchange

Sarah Hampson, Globe columnist: Good morning Sally. Well, it's a wonder my wedding dress didn't spontaneously combust after I read the story in today's paper about marriage in Afghan culture. It's down in the garage, packaged up - hermetically, I should add - almost 23 years after the one time I wore it, and about six years since my divorce.

In contemporary Western life, we are still mulling over the meaning of the marriage culture, and the institution itself, that many of us willingly - and dare I say, dreamily - engaged in, and still do. It is under revolution as the family undergoes reconstruction in terms of assumed gender roles. And for many, it can still be a shock when they realize how they unconsciously assumed a retrograde wife identity post-altar. (Mostly, that's about "being a good wife" - the adjective governing a lot of behaviour from demure sexuality to soup-making.)

So, to read about forced marriage and young girls being sold to men (geezers, often!) for the equivalent of $15,000 - well, it's a shocking reminder of the roots of marriage as an institution: women as property; chattel, basically.

But maybe, as you have been saying, these "traditions" in Afghanistan, are difficult to budge, even when the government has signed the Protocols for the Elimination of Forced and Child Marriage.

Sally Armstrong, journalist: As you probably know, women were legally "chattel" in Canada until 1968. That meant a man had the right to beat his wife - the right!!! And if you recall, women being married in those days said, "I obey" when they took their marriage vows. All of which reminds us that change can happen. Women in Canada demanded change and got it (well most of it) and women in Afghanistan are making the same demands today.

The issue that struck me about today's instalment was the new study about the effect gender equality has on village income. These studies began at the World Bank in 1985. They've been updated every five years since and in every study, they show unequivocally that if you treat the women fairly, the economy of the village will improve. But the perplexing part is that not much changed - women were still at the end of the line when it came to aid because donated dollars were given to men who chose projects involving the well being of men.

Now you couldn't get a red cent from a place like CIDA unless there is a gender component in your project. But benefitting the women is still a challenge. For example, a health clinic for women, paid for with donated dollars, is built too far for the women to walk to or in a place women are forbidden. Who's maintaining these barriers and how are they going to be removed? One of the things CIDA did when husbands in Kandahar refused to let their wives go to literacy classes was to offer food for school programs. If a woman attends classes to learn to read and write, she gets food for her family. Clever move.

It's going to take a combined effort from economists and humanitarians and those with expertise in gender issues to knock down the barriers for women and girls.

One more thing - speaking of money - how do you suppose these seemingly poor men in Afghanistan come up with $15,000 for a bride price?

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