BLOG: One of the most interesting – albeit challenging – parts of researching child marriage in Brazil is recognizing the need for a more nuanced, dynamic, and critical understanding of children’s agency. Unfortunately, we are still quite distant from it.
Blog post by PhD candidate Larissa Cristina Margarido, FGV Sao Paulo Law School
How are sexual and family practices used as elements of recognition, subversion and/or disregard of protection for girls by the Child Protection System? By talking to young mothers and wives in the city of São Paulo, in Brazil, I have spent the last year trying to answer this question. One of the things I have found is that there is a dire need for a reconceptualization of children’s agency when researching this matter.
After spending just a few days with those girls, I realized that even though there are relevant differences between giving in, consenting, and deciding, the recognition of their agency is fundamental for comprehending child marriage in Brazil and proposing public services and programs that both prevent the practice and aid young wives in their daily lives.
Recognizing young wives’ agency is fundamental for comprehending child marriage in Brazil and proposing public services and programs that both prevent the practice and aid the girls already involved in them. However, to do so, it is first necessary to understand what we are calling agency and how such conceptualization affects the girl-agents.
Recognizing young wives’ agency is fundamental for comprehending child marriage in Brazil and proposing public services and programs that both prevent the practice and aid the girls already involved in them.Larissa Cristina Margarido
What is agency in the context of child marriage?
According to anthropologist Ahearn, agency refers to the context-dependent and culturally constrained capacity to act, which is not binary, but located somewhere between free will and the absolute lack of options. Concerning children’s agency specifically, sociologists James & James conceptualize it as their ability to have some control over their life direction and to play some part in the changes that take place in society.
The amount and content of this ‘some’ then becomes a central query of childhood studies and, more specifically, of child marriage research, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean, where a hallmark of early unions – whether formal or not – is their alleged consensuality.
In these countries, rather than being sold or given into marriage, many girls engage voluntarily in such unions and often are the ones to suggest it after starting a romantic relationship. Similarly, the young wives’ subsequent life decisions reveal their appropriation of significant responsibilities and obligations concerning their home and family, even though in a position of dependence on their husbands, and without legal recognition, since they have not reached the age of maturity.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, rather than being sold or given into marriage, many girls engage voluntarily in such unions and often are the ones to suggest it after starting a romantic relationship.”Larissa Cristina Margarido
Drawing on this, what is important to note is that the agency of those girls results from a delicate balance between, on one side, different degrees of sociocultural obligations and individual instances of persuasion, pressure, and threats, and, on the other, their ability or attempt to understand, negotiate, and make decisions for themselves, even in a scenario of few alternatives. Unfortunately, so far, few studies have explored agency in child marriage.
The potential of research
The understanding of children’s agency is particularly disputed given its dependence on the comprehension of childhood, which has been increasingly debated on two fronts in the couple last decades:
- The existence of a universal understanding of childhood, which, in the agency realm, would entail that all children have the same ability to comprehend and act in the world, even if under different circumstances; and
- The correlation between childhood and innocence, which, regarding agency, adds a moral evaluation of children’s understandings and actions.
These fronts particularly affect the comprehension of the agency of young wives, whose life experiences challenge both the universal and the innocent conceptions of girlhood.
Recent debates on the understanding of childhood particularly affect the comprehension of the agency of young wives, whose life experiences challenge both the universal and the innocent conceptions of girlhood.Larissa Cristina Margarido
In this sense, many authors recognize that the inherent constraint of children’s agency by structural forces deeply affects their actions and desires, giving rise to the conceptualization of agency types, many of which have already been applied in an attempt to frame young wives’ behaviour.
However, even within this scholarship, researchers are making post-fact moral assessments of young wives’ choices in order to recognize it as either an example of agency or of some ‘deviant’ behaviour that needs to be corrected in order to conform to their conception of childhood and age-appropriate demeanour. An adequate application of the understanding of children’s agency should not be conditional to post-fact moral assessments by researchers.
An adequate application of the understanding of children’s agency should not be conditional to post-fact moral assessments by researchers.Larissa Cristina Margarido
The election of what should or not be included in the list of practices children have agency to engage in is notoriously difficult exactly because it exposes what is socially, culturally, and politically expected from – and imposed on – girls and boys. Nonetheless, we cannot earnestly discuss children’s agency without openly making such decisions and recognizing their limits and consequences.
In the case of girls involved in child marriages, research on agency has the potential of both empowering and protecting them or blaming and endangering their existence. I opt for the first.
Yes, young wives have agency
Before starting my research, I was certain that girls’ agency should not encompass marrying at an early age. Now, I know that, not only does it, but moreover, that marrying is only one of the many different things they are not equipped to decide on, but do nonetheless, because of sociocultural obligations, family relations, and individual aspirations.
Legally prohibiting and morally condemning child marriage has not stopped thousands of Brazilian girls from getting into such unions but has hindered their access to help and support through public services and programs for fear of judgment and punishment.
That is why I believe a more nuanced, dynamic, and critical understanding of children’s agency is necessary for helping to comprehend child marriage in Brazil and propose public services and programs that both prevent the practice and aid young wives in their daily lives.
But, for that, it is necessary to recognize and research young wives’ agency, listening to them with no judgment and attempting to understand their personal biographies, social contexts, cultural discourses, and spatial relations.
That is why I believe a more nuanced, dynamic, and critical understanding of children’s agency is necessary for helping to comprehend child marriage in Brazil and propose public services and programs that both prevent the practice and aid young wives in their daily lives.Larissa Cristina Margarido
 Ahearn, L. (2001). Language and Agency. Annual Review of Anthropology, 30(1), 109–137.
 James, A., & James, A. (2012). Key Concepts in Childhood Studies (2nd edition). London: Sage Publications.
 Taylor, A. et al. (2015). “She goes with me in my boat”: Child and Adolescent Marriage in Brazil. Results from Mixed-Methods Research. Federal District: Promundo.
Taylor, A. et al. (2019). Child Marriages and Unions in Latin America: Understanding the Roles of Agency and Social Norms. Journal of Adolescent Health, 64(4), S45–S51.
 Mowri, S. et al. (2020). Binary Framing of Consent and Coercion of Child Marriage: A Critique. In: G. Crivello, & G. Mann (eds.). Dreaming of a Better Life: Child Marriage Through Adolescent Eyes, 21–32. Oxford: Young Lives.
 Klocker, N. (2007). An Example of ‘Thin’ Agency: Child Domestic Workers in Tanzania. In: R. Panelli, S. Punch, & E. Robson (eds.). Global Perspectives on Rural Childhood and Youth: Young Rural Lives, 83–94. Oxfordshire: Routledge.
 Castro, L. (2020). Why global? Children and Childhood from a Decolonial Perspective. Childhood, 27(1), 48–62.
Castro, L. (2021). Decolonising Child Studies: Development and Globalism as Orientalist Perspectives. Third World Quarterly, 42(11), 2487–2504.
 Faulkner, J. (2011). The Importance of Being Innocent: Why We Worry About Children. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Garlen, J. (2019). Interrogating Innocence: “Childhood” as Exclusionary Social Practice. Childhood, 26(1), 54–67.
 See Panelli, R., Punch, S., & Robson, E. (Eds.). (2007). Global Perspectives on Rural Childhood and Youth: Young Rural Lives, 179–191. Oxfordshire: Routledge.
 Bordonaro, L. I., & Payne, R. (2012). Ambiguous Agency: Critical Perspectives on Social Interventions with Children and Youth in Africa. Children’s Geographies, 10(4), 365–372.
 Robson, E., Bell, S., & Klocker, N. (2007). Conceptualizing agency in the lives and actions of rural young people. In: R. Panelli, S. Punch, & E. Robson (eds.). Global Perspectives on Rural Childhood and Youth: Young Rural Lives, 135–148. Oxfordshire: Routledge.