The cultural relativism trap: child rape is not ‘relative’

An introductory lecture to my postgrad in Violence, Conflict and Development threw up an interesting experiment the other day. Students were asked to assess whether different images – from caterpillars eating leaves, to a boxing match, to a tsunami – could be considered violent. One of the images was of a child bride, age 9, being married to an elderly man in Afghanistan. I don’t wish to get into what defines violence here – I’m sure at the end of a yearlong postgraduate degree we’ll still not be entirely clear – but something one of my fellow students said really stood out to me, and not for the right reasons.

“This image is culturally relative. It would be neo-colonialist of us to pass judgement on what is happening here.”

This opinion is as deeply disturbing as it is highly problematic. Considerations of others cultures should always be at the forefront of our minds when approaching these problems, and it is absolutely correct that we should not simply dismiss the behaviour of those perpetrating these problems as ‘primitive’ or ‘stupid’, let alone blunder in blindly without considering the consequences of our actions. We should always attempt to understand, and proceed with caution. But a 9 year old being married to a sixty year old is always our business, and it doesn’t matter where they might be located. Human rights are not culturally relative, they are universal and applicable to all.

Children are too young to consent, and this is not a culturally relative truth. Before a certain age, none of us experience sexual feelings, and certainly not the fully-formed sexual desires we experience as adults. And while the age at which we are capable of making our own sexual choices certainly varies between different people, and there’s debate in all societies about what an acceptable age of consent should be, there is not a country in the world that has deemed nine to be an appropriate age. There is no conceivable chance that a child of nine will fully comprehend what is happening to them when they are married off to a sixty year old, less still that they are able to consent to this action. I have yet to hear about a nine year old being rescued from a position of abuse such as this and find that they haven’t been severely traumatised. It is also irrefutable, and certainly not relative to the culture in which you have been born, that being pregnant at an extremely young carries significant dangers, as has been documented by the World Health Organisation, especially in a context where there is only limited access to healthcare. Recently, for example, an eleven year old victim of incestuous paedophilia in Paraguay, denied an abortion in a deeply disturbing violation of human rights, gave birth via a caesarean because a delivery would have carried too high a risk. It seems highly unlikely the Afghan girl I saw photographed would have access to any kind of advanced medical facility should any of these problems arise, placing her life in danger. None of these basic facts are culturally relative. They are simple scientific, empirical principles that can be recorded and measured.

Cultural relativism is invaluable when approaching an unfamiliar culture, but it cannot be used to apply dismissive attitude to human rights abuses. If child marriage is culturally relative, then could genocide also be so? Cultural relativism is about seeking to understand how people behave in their everyday lives. Palestinian women wear the hijab (mostly), Indians usually have arranged marriages, Afghans are probably Muslim. These are all differences that we should be fascinated by, and celebrate, and seek to discuss and learn from. But they should not dictate how people live against their will. It is not culturally relative that a Palestinian woman should be forced to wear a hijab, that an Indian woman could be forced to marry a man she didn’t want to, or that an Afghan could get stoned to death for professing atheism. These are not culturally relative circumstances, they are human rights abuses, and must be criticised as such. Likewise we should not feel immune from being criticised for the human rights abuses we carry out, like the detention of refugee children, secret trials or illegal rendition. This is not neo-colonialism, it is a vital conversation that we must have with the world.

I never got a chance to respond to the girl espousing cultural relativism whether she felt an Afghan man who moved to the UK with a child bride should be arrested in the UK. Does Afghan count as another culture once you move away from Afghanistan’s geographical boundaries? Are we right to criticise people from other cultures once they reside within our national boarders? And why do we feel culture is so easily defined by arbitrary lines on a map, when even traditional white Britain itself is made up of a class system so determined to separate the wealthy from the poor that these different subsects, of course, can count as separate cultures in themselves? I wonder perhaps if she would have felt that criticising the French was appropriate, when they too surely embody a separate culture to our own. The French burqa ban surely registers as a concerning human rights violation based on a worrying culturally specific trend; that of enforced public secularism.

I am deeply concerned that it is not so much ‘culture’ that is defining this relativism but skin colour; the ever-present spectre of colonialism makes it easy to criticise cultures inhabited by white people but those inhabited by others to which we should rightly feel guilty makes it difficult to criticise. But this is of little comfort to that nine year old Afghan girl. We absolutely must be cautious, and we must spend the time and effort ensuring that our approach to tackling these global challenges is effective, sensitive and appropriate. But let’s be clear: human rights abuses are not culturally relative, and child rape is not defined differently across international borders. We must strive for a world where culture is no longer a barrier when it comes to human rights, or many of the advances we as a species have made in protecting each other will all have been for nothing.


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