I opened an e-mail from a friend a couple of weeks ago. Inside I found an internet link, accompanied by the message, “Isn’t this super creepy lol?” The link led to a web story about a young woman named Courtney Stodden who had temporarily captured (seduced?) the pop culture media beat by raising ruckus about the deletion –and subsequent reinstatement – of her facebook page. Apparently, her “super sexy sensual” photographs had raised the ire of the cybercensors by being too sexy. Too sensual. Too … super? Or perhaps, in an alternate reading, they had been labeled with the legal definition of what they were: sexualized semi-nudes of a minor.

Did I mention Mrs. Stodden is 17 years old?

This isn’t a blog entry about “slut shaming,” or bringing down a sanctimonious cultural wrath on young women who dare to take ownership of their sexuality. This isn’t an entry about the culture which simultaneously expects and forbids it. This isn’t an entry about the absurdity of the idea that a teenager posting or texting bikini pictures can make them a “sex offender” for the rest of their lives in the eyes of the law. This isn’t even an entry about Courtney Stodden; not really. I’ve seen her pictures. She has the right to do as she likes, but I suspect she’ll live to regret them, along with many of the decisions she’s making in her youth. The shots themselves are far more ridiculous than provocative: heavy-lidded eyes, spray-tan abs, lips parted slightly in what I suspect is meant to be seductive but has the overall effect of a photograph captured in that precise awkward millisecond right before a sneeze. If they were to show one iota of self-awareness, they’d be an adequate, if overplayed, parody of how adult sexuality is marketed. Since they don’t, they’re mostly just … awkward. A little sad, even.

Most people bring along a camera on family outings like Halloween pumpkin-picking. Relatively few tip off the paparazzi to follow them around their field trips to farmer’s markets, but if your sole objective is to get your picture taken, the end result is similar.

Image from HuffPost

But I can’t wrap my brain around why she’s famous. Because she’s bottle-blonde? Because she fits most of the criteria of That Which Americans Find Conventionally Attractive? Because she performs the sort of attention-grabbing exploits my generation consumes with an enthusiasm usually reserved for Pumpkin Spice Lattes? Because she took part in whatever dark-magic alchemy that made Paris Hilton and The Real Housewives into household names, a process I can only speculate involves a full moon, rune carving, and the exsanguination of a virgin?

My best guess is that she’s all of those things, with one tantalizing extra that can unite everyone in their tongue-clicking: she married a rich and moderately-powerful Hollywood-type at the tender age of 16. A child! Barely old enough to have a driver’s license, let alone a marriage license! Let us all cross our arms and roll our eyes in unison! Passing judgment is the great American pastime; we’re just doing our civic duty! (Nota bene: In the US, it’s legal to marry before you can buy a lottery ticket in all but a handful of states.)

For me, I’ve been in Kenya long enough that the idea of a married 16 year old doesn’t seem terribly abnormal. According to recent UNICEF data, 12% of all girls here aged 15-18 are already married, and over a quarter women who are mothers by their mid-twenties started having children before the age of 18. I attended a meeting recently wherein, among other things, a student – a 14-year-old girl, to be exact – was being discussed. She was pregnant, by a boy who wasn’t a student in any school (I believe he was 16 or 17 but my memory may be shifty on this point.) I recall the palpable sense of relief that permeated the room when it was revealed that the village elders had spoken with him, and he had agreed to marry the girl when she started “showing” and had to drop out. Not all girls who become pregnant immediately get married, and not all girls who get married do so because they are pregnant. But predictably, in a region where the average age of sexual debut is around 13 and comprehensive sex education is virtually unheard of, there is a strong correlation.

In my opinion, there are specific instances where the argument of cultural relativism is little more than an intellectual sleight-of-hand, a chicanerous shield to conceal inescapable injustices, serving to turn away those who would question the viability of a practice by labeling the inquirers as racists/imperialists. (Isn’t saying “they can’t do any better, it’s just their culture” also potentially a form of racism? But I digress.) However, I wouldn’t automatically cast early marriage into this category. I understand its tradition from a cultural perspective: women who are married have (traditionally, ideally, in theory, caveat ad infinitum) experienced a greater degree of financial protection and stability. A man would provide and guard, a woman would bear children and be responsible for their educations, and the village would benefit from whatever the societal judgment of “social normalcy” would be. Furthermore, the earlier after first menses you’re married, the less likely you are to shame your family by bearing children out of wedlock – and teenagers are teenagers the world over. Plus your family gets free stuff! Who DOESN’T like free stuff? Among the local tribes and groups here, bridal gifts towards the relatives’ families were carefully negotiated.

Setting aside the incredibly complex issues of choice and accompanying screeds regarding patriarchy/bias/gender inequality/conversion of people to chattel/etc – that’s a master’s thesis, not a blog entry – I know many Kenyans who see the practice of early marriage as, at best, problematic. (Or, as one health worker described it, “A disaster draining our brightest girls out of school and into poverty.”) Girls who marry young typically drop out of school nearly immediately. Even if a girl has a strong desire to complete her education, how can she? It’s impossible to accurately generalize about “Kenya” or “Africa” as a whole – my conversations and experiences are only applicable to the specific tribal and community dynamics of my area. But here, a married woman is often expected to perform all manner of domestic duties from cooking and cleaning to tending livestock and providing for a child’s education. If the family farms as a means of securing food and/or cash, she’d be expected to be an active participant in that, too. Children, it should almost go without saying, would be an enormous additional time burden.

Ideally, her husband would be employed and support her while she labors in this way. However, it bears mentioning that the current unemployment rate in Kenya is 40%. This is a tricky statistic; in the absence of a more detailed definition, I can’t ascertain how much of that is accounted for by women who choose not to work outside the home or men who are only employed seasonally, etc. But the point stands that there are more young, able-bodied men than there are available jobs. If the husband can’t find work, the wife might have to pick up the slack there, too – selling vegetables, making handicrafts, performing domestic labor for other families, or disappearing into the world’s oldest profession.

Doing all of this while keeping up with the pressures of schoolwork and national exams is not impossible, but it is extraordinarily difficult. Some families are able to work out arrangements. I knew of a girl who arranged for an aunt to watch her baby while she attended classes, while a friend helped her with assignments when she had to stay home. However, these situations are far more the exception than the norm. Furthermore, a paradoxical relationship exists between the states of childhood and motherhood. Mothers, particularly those who are legally married, have achieved virtually the highest value available to them in rural society, and yet the social stigmas attached to proof of early sexuality do not evaporate with the simple addition of a wedding band. Girls do not always find it easy to re-integrate into their previous social circles after childbirth.

It should be unsurprising, then, that there is a pervasive resistance to girls who are married, and have children, returning to school to complete their educations. It is NOT limited to one tribe, faith, socio-economic class, region, or any other single limiting factor. For example, in my anecdotal experience, I’m just as likely to hear the opinion that married women belong in the home from a Christian as from a Muslim. When it has come up in discussions in my Life Skills classes, it tends to be the boys who are more vocal and vehement about it than the girls. (Perhaps because they’re more vocal about most things, or perhaps because it’s not a situation they’ll ever have to find themselves in personally?) In a community that’s still struggling to forge an identity that balances tradition with modernity, it’s not likely a conversation that’s going to end soon.

However, I also know a woman – the blunt, resolute headmistress of a local primary school – who has had mothers of newly-married girls attempt to use witchcraft against her for encouraging them to come back, if only to sit for their national exams. These girls are often as young as fourth grade, still so easy to view as children, despite having started families of their own. “They didn’t have this kind of opportunity themselves,” the headmistress explained to me one day as she exasperatedly swept another pile of charred chicken bones off her desk. “Now they can’t see the value in it for the girls. But something is not made to be right just because it is the way things have always been done in the past.” Through blood, sweat, and tears, she has wrestled the drop-out rate related to marriage from over 40 to around a dozen. With every girl who returns, a little ground is gained.

The sum of these cultural pressures and ongoing ideological battles yields what is perhaps the most tragic circumstance of all: young women who feel they simply don’t have a choice. If their dearest wish is to be a wife and mother, who am I – who is anyone – to tell them that’s the “wrong” option to choose? Feminism and empowerment are about the ability to make autonomous decisions, not the end result of the decisions themselves. Motherhood is a sacred calling. I sincerely hope they find the joy they seek. But too often, girls feel the societal weight of this expectation looming like the sword of Damacles. They are wholly unaware that opting out of the practice is even a possibility. It does not matter if they’re talented at mathematics or can write a beautiful essay in multiple languages. It does not matter if they dream of being a nurse, or pilot, or Member of Parliament. It does not matter if they’re a Wangari Maathai in the making, if somewhere in their futures could lie the simple, elegant idea which catalyzes a movement that could change the world.

No, it does not matter, not even a little, when their mothers are crushing them with centuries of cultural expectations. They set aside their dreams, prepared to take up a market basket and an infant sling in their place.

Not every young woman in my area gets married before she is old enough to legally buy champagne for her honeymoon. Indeed, it’s not even the majority. I know plenty of women who finish their educations, work jobs, save up money for years, or even a decade, before they settle down into wife- and motherhood. Some of those who do are perfectly content with their lots in life; to them, I say mazeltov (or, in Swahili, hongera.) But so long as there is one young woman who doesn’t feel ownership of her choices, her body, her sexuality, her reproductive rights; so long as there is one young woman who feels as though she has to choose between her culture and her career; so long as there is one young woman who wants an education but finds the way blocked because she’s a mother or a wife … that’s one too many. That is one woman who people like the chief of my village and the headmistress with the chicken bone-covered desk are trying to reach, are refusing to give up on.

I work with young women. I teach them about life skills, empowerment, and other development-work buzzwords. I give condom demonstrations with suggestive fruit to giggling-but-secretly-fascinated girls’ groups and stress the importance of proactive family planning (including abstinence.) I encourage them to choose worthy role models and seek me out if they EVER have any questions/concerns about anything. However, only a fool would think an issue as complex and entrenched as early marriage could simply be white’splained away; it’s from Kenyans like the headmistress and the chief that the most meaningful changes will come. Not from outsiders like me.