Trauma as the disruptive factor of a child’s mentality: reflections on child marriages and violation of children’s human rights
Luiza Sartori Costa
Master’s student in “Human Rights and Multi Level Governance” at the
Università degli Studi di Padova. Author of the book“Child marriage:
Stolen childhood by serious violations of children’s human rights”.
Carla Cristiane Lopes Corte
Collaborating Professor in the Financial Economics course
(modality: extension)at the State University of Campinas and
a professor at theFaculdades de Campinas (FACAMP).
This paper aims at demonstrating that child marriages by subjecting girls, still as children, to violence that is not only sexual, but also emotional and psychological, are configured as traumatic experiences that disrupt and disorganize the development of their mentality and consequently of their personality, subjectivity and the way they perceive themselves as individuals. The social isolation of the girl, her withdrawal from schools, and the rupture of family ties, considered to be fundamental for the psychological development and the notion of self of girls, reinforce the traumas caused by the combination of all the drastic consequences of child marriages. The authors argue that all of this is of the order of horror not only because a child’s natural processes of growth toward her destiny as a free adult is aborted, but above all because the bonds of trust that unite a child to her parents and the community are destroyed. The feelings that remain for these children are of annihilation, vulnerability, ambivalence. Pains like this hardly heal and may cause serious lifelong consequences, such as depressive disorders, anxiety, substance abuse and aggressive behaviors. The trauma caused by child, early and forced marriages is the main axis of the interpretation of this phenomenon as a serious violation of children’s human rights, a necessary qualification to demand urgent and more effective policies and political response aimed at eradicating this practice.
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Human rights are inherent to all human beings, simply because we are all humans. They are universal and inalienable, meaning that all human beings are equally entitled to them and that they should not be taken away. They are also indivisible and interdependent, principles which refer to the insufficiency of respecting and protecting only a couple of rights to the detriment of others: the full enjoyment of human rights is only possible if all sets of rights are respected, protected and enjoyed. More than that, human rights must be guaranteed to everyone, “without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status” (United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner 2021; United Nations General Assembly 1948, article 2).
The preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly states that these rights are “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world” (United Nations General Assembly, 1948), and as so their protection, since the beginning of life, is vital for the dignity and integrity of each person. Children’s human rights, as the rights referent to the first phase of human life comprehending both childhood and adolescence, are of utmost importance to ensure that children grow, thrive and develop their own personalities and notions of self, and that they will be able to achieve their full potentials and effectively contribute to their communities and society.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), adopted on 1989 by the United Nations General Assembly, is the most comprehensive international document defending and protecting children’s human rights. The CRC recognizes that “the child, for the full and harmonious development of his or her personality, should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding” (United Nations General Assembly, 1989, preamble). To ensure this, it establishes States’ and parents’ duties and obligations towards child protection, development, growth and enjoyment of rights.
Children are “every human being below the age of eighteen years” (United Nations General Assembly, 1989, article 1), and the rights set forth in the CRC are rights of both children and adolescents. Hence, the CRC shall be interpreted in accordance with the children’s development phase, specific needs, living conditions, socioeconomic status and cultural background, respecting the child’s best interests and wellbeing. Despite being the most ratified international human rights document, there are still several and serious violations of children’s rights, as States do not fulfill their duties and obligations as enshrined in the CRC.
All violations of children’s rights disrupt and threaten their growing process, endangering their health, learning capabilities, mentality, sense of belonging, human dignity, and physical and psychological integrity. Irrespective of the qualification of violence against children as “serious”, every form of violence is harmful and poses great risks for children’s mental, cognitive, emotional, psychological and physical development. Interruptions in the development processes are likely to have lifelong consequences, such as psychological traumas, depressive disorders, anxiety, substance abuse and aggressive behaviors, severely impacting children’s way of thinking and perceiving the world, personalities, subjectivity and notions of “I” (UN Committee on the Rights of the Child 2011, para. 13, 15).
Child, early and forced marriages are a harmful practice against children and children’s human rights that encourage, trigger and make girls even more vulnerable to other harmful practices, such as “honor” crimes, payment of bride price or dowry, female genital mutilation, virginity tests, and rapes (International NGO Council on Violence Against Children 2012: 31-32). The submission of girls to marriage does not respect their interests and deprives them of the protection and care that would ensure their well-being and enjoyment of their basic human rights, besides annihilating girls’ own voices and decision-making powers regarding their own bodies and lives.
Child marriages are defined as any formal or informal union, including cohabitation, in which one or both spouses are under 18 years of age. Even though this practice also affect boys, it disproportionately affects girls, with estimates from the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) affirming that 12 million girls are married each year and, if progress towards ending this practice is not accelerated, more than 150 million girls will be married in the next 10 years before completing 18 years of age (United Nations Children’s Fund 2021). Furthermore, it violates a number of children’s basic human rights, placing them in a situation of immense vulnerability and subjecting them to serious abuse and violence. This practice directly violates at least 12 articles of the CRC (specifically 1, 2, 3, 6, 12, 19, 24, 28, 29, 34, 35 and 36), demonstrating the severity of its impacts over girls’ lives, well-being and protection.
This harmful practice subject girls to severe health and lifelong consequences. Girls are often isolated from their families and forced to abandon school, as they are expected to engage in and assume a series of marriage-related responsibilities. They are also commonly subjected to domestic violence, abuse and rape, as they find themselves in a situation of increased vulnerability and isolated from any supportive network that would protect and help them to impose and enforce their own wills.
Less education leads to consequences such as lower income and socio-economic status, which will further lead to a higher level of dependence of these girls on their spouses. Forced sexual relations and early pregnancies, when girls are not physically, emotionally and psychologically developed to bear, give birth to and raise a child – after all they themselves are still children – expose girls to greater health complications, such as higher risks of exposure to sexually transmitted infections, miscarriage, obstructed labor and increased risks of maternal and infant mortality (International NGO Council on Violence Against Children 2012: 32; Nour 2009: 54).
The living conditions of a married girl, who was forced to become a bride often by her own parents, are significant and strong drivers of psychological and emotional consequences. The feeling of being isolated from their families, from the persons they used to trust in, leads to emotional weaknesses and to psychological disorders, such as to depression and anxiety (Nour 2009: 53-54). These conditions are also highly disruptive of girls’ mentality and personality, profoundly impacting how they perceive the world around them and respond to it, how they perceive themselves as desiring subjects. Ultimately, child marriages impact the development into the women those girls will become in the future.
Since children are individuals with specific rights and duties, to whom special protection and attention should be given, the practice of child marriages violates the most intimate point of definition and perception of childhood. Children are characterized by their vulnerability and dependence on adults, who are precisely the ones forcing girls into early and child marriages. Those would be the very adults on whom the girls would rely to denounce the violence suffered and to be able to internalize in their psyche all the violence they are subjected to. This context sets the ideal conditions over which traumatic experiences are formed, due to the absence of protection and support from a trusted adult, causing a rupture in the child’s capacity to trust in her own perceptions of her reality (Fuchs & Peixoto Junior 2014: 165).
Early and forced marriages steal the childhood from the girls, disrupt and disorganize their development process, and place them under higher risks of suffering emotional, psychological and physical violence. The social isolation of the girl, her withdrawal from schools, and the rupture of family ties, considered to be fundamental for the psychological development and the notion of self of girls, reinforce the traumatic experiences that they go through in the conjugal relationships which they are subjected to. The trauma is caused by the combination of all the drastic consequences of child marriages and is the fundamental factor leading to the qualification of child marriages as a serious violation of children’s rights. This because the severity factor of human rights violations is determined by the severity of their consequences to the victims.
Qualifying and considering child marriages as a grave human rights violation is essential to properly face the inherent violent character of this practice. More than that, this qualification is necessary to demand an effective and urgent response from States, international organizations and the international community to prohibit and eliminate this practice that subject girls to catastrophic traumatic consequences, in order to ensure that they will enjoy their childhood and develop in a safe and caring environment.
Traumatic consequences: the severity of violations perpetrated by child marriage
Catastrophe. Denial. Disavowal. All expressions used by Ferenczi to refer to the exercise of the traumatic force that child marriages entail. Child marriages by subjecting girls, still as children, to violence that is not only sexual, but also emotional and psychological, are configured as traumatic experiences that disrupt and disorganize the development of their mentality, personality, subjectivity and the way they perceive themselves as individuals.
The traumatic, defined as an event that transforms the relations of habitual time, brings about a rupture in the fabric of time which introduces the subject into another temporality. The result is complex because the violence impedes the inscription in the psychic apparatus. It is situated in the order of non-representation and, as a result, becomes impossible to be symbolized. The effect is a “narcissistic self-cleavage” that occurs by atomization and shattering, being the place of the unrepresentable. Such events only find possible expressions and exits in the silence and in the cleavages. The trauma occupies, therefore, a place that is not of the repressed and does not find itself in the unconscious. It is outside of the psychic space of representation, hindering the process of being remembered in order to be, a posteriori, forgotten. This becomes a critical question because, according to Freud, man only maintains psychic health because he has the capacity to forget.
And this endless time does not end with the individual experience of a child that finds herself occupying a place that she is not able, even physically, to occupy. This is because, in psychoanalysis, a trauma such as this encloses infinite times which flow into the socius, into the perpetration of violence, since this child tends to uncritically reproduce what has been experienced, since she was not allowed to comprehend her own story and the violence to which she was subjected.
The first phase of the trauma caused by the experience of a child marriage takes place in the interruption of several processes that a child goes through in crossing over to adulthood. This child not only finds herself unable to structure herself as a desiring subject, capable of controlling her own body, but also she does not complete all the necessary movements for the formation of what is usually called as the formation of the “I”. Her psychic apparatus, still under construction, suffers shocks in the identity processes (ideal self, ideal of self). This is a loss of trust on an “I” that is still being formed.
This time unfolds into a spiral because not only does undoubted violence occurs, but it is also surrounded by denial. Ferenczi (1931/2011) emphasizes that “the worst thing is really the disavowal, the statement that nothing has happened, that there was no suffering (…) it is this, above all, that makes the trauma pathogenic”.
This disavowal and the little importance that is given to the infantile condition of a child about to be married in absentia accentuates the constitutive helplessness of the human being highlighted by Freud, which strongly reinforces the necessity of protection. Ferenczi also highlights how the vulnerable self (the infantile self, above all) constantly needs to be supported by the adult.
And all of this is of the order of horror not only because a child’s natural processes of growth toward her destiny as a free adult is aborted, but above all because the bonds of trust that unite a child to her parents and the community are destroyed. Such bonds are fundamental for the structuring of how children perceive the world around them and their places within it, and their destruction leads to substantial interruptions and disruptions in the development process of a child’s mentality, personality and self-perception. The feelings that remain for these children are of annihilation, vulnerability, ambivalence. Pains like this hardly heal.
Tragedies like these can only be taken as social traumas. They are political questions, per excellence, because what is in the order of facts are the relations of power, dependency, devaluation, and disrespect in our present time. Perhaps here we should close by recalling Lacapra (2001) when he states that “writing history is writing trauma”.
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