Marriage Equality: What Does It Really Mean?


I was thinking the other day about the many public figures now who have come out in support of same sex marriages and have declared that they will not marry until people in same sex marriages are freely able to marry. Jason Mraz, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Charlie Theron, Kristen Bell (although she did marry after saying this!) have all made this stand.  But I began to think more deeply about this issue and I realised that there are other areas in which we can extend both our understanding and also our commitment to marriage equality. 

If we are serious about marriage equality our actions should not stop when same sex couples are able to wed. The campaign for marriage equality should continue until there are no child brides, until women are not murdered for their dowry, until marriage is a free choice for both parties and a celebration of a love and desire to share with the other. 

Clearly we are a long way from this. In fact I believe that we are closer to equality for same sex couples than in any other area of marriage inequality. 

Of course the history of marriage is not one that has a resonance with equality. Women were considered the property of their fathers and a wedding symbolised the passing of this property from one man (father) to another (husband). However in more contemporary forms, marriage is considered to be a more mutual union between two people of equal value. 

Marriage is of course also the site of much violence against women, physical, verbal, emotional, sexual violence; and less commonly violence against men is perpetrated by their female partner. All of which raises the question of equality in a deeper way. 

But the other faces of marriage throughout the world are of great concern, as is the tendency in Western societies to deny or ignore their existence. 

According to UNICEF (2013) one third of the world’s girls are married before they reach 18 years and one in 9 are married before the age of 15 years. Child marriage is linked to poverty and of course, the education of girls is greatly reduced through child marriage. Child brides are also more likely to die in childbirth, contract sexually transmitted diseases, be subjected to sexual and domestic violence, and experience feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and depression (often linked to post traumatic stress). 

UNICEF also provides detailed information about forced marriages, the majority of which involve child brides. They state that over 55% of the marriages in the world are arranged. The practice of dowry and bride price is of course also related to the issue of forced marriages and these customs occur most commonly in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.  Dowry death in women who are either murdered (bride burning) or commit suicide because of ongoing harassment and torture by their husbands and in-laws is another consequence of these complex issues. 

None of this means that we should discontinue a campaign for equal rights for same sex couples. It just suggests that marriage inequality means a great deal more than this. So I am encouraging all of us who feel strongly about marriage equality and who might feel moved to make a stand about this issue, to extend our definition of marriage equality to everyone in the world and to the institution of marriage more generally. Maybe if we all stand up about this issue we might make gains for people all over the world who are not free to marry as they might choose.