Transforming social norms and traditional practices

Families arranging marriages between daughters and sons at an early age, regarding girls as financial burden or source of income and giving priority to the education of sons, the taboo on premarital sex and therefore marrying off girls when they get into puberty: social norms and traditional practices play a major role in the continued existence of child marriage. One of the six strategies Her Choice applies in the field addresses the transformation of social norms and traditional customs that are fostering child marriage.

Her Choice tackles child marriage not only by empowering girls and strengthening their knowledge, but also by creating more conducive environments. We aim for behavioral change in communities by raising awareness of parents, boys, teachers, health care workers, traditional leaders and other relevant community members on girls’ rights and the detrimental effects of child marriage. Therefore, these stakeholders form an integral part of our grassroots approach and ultimately may become the driving forces in stopping child marriage.

Changes in mindsets

The Midline Study (conducted in 2018) showed that a higher share of community leaders had been sensitized on negative effects of child marriage and female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) than during the Baseline Study (conducted in 2016). Also an increase was found in most countries in the share of village leaders who reported having condemned child marriage in village meetings and in proportion of villages with community members who had organised activities on negative effects of child marriage. In nearly all countries in the midline (compared to the baseline) a higher share of parents considered child marriage having negative consequences for their daughters.

Share of parents who report to consider child marriage bad for their daughters (%)

This more enabling environment results in that in all countries, an increasing share of girls reported feeling they can consult a particular source when they have questions or concerns related to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and in most countries single girls reported feeling supported in decision making on early marriage.

Share of single girls who feel they can consult a source on SRHR issues (%)

Share of single girls who feel supported in decision-making on early marriage against their will (%)

However, there are also challenges. Despite the changes in mindsets of village leaders, community members and parents, girls’ sexuality and sexual activity in most communities are still taboo and use of contraceptives by single girls is limited. As a result, teenage pregnancies are fairly common occurrences in some countries, which in turn can lead to marriage in order to prevent shame for girls and their parents.

Tackling child marriage through theatre

In Benin The Hunger Project works with the professional theater group Baobab to make the community aware of issues such as early pregnancies and child marriages. Baobab works together with young people and animators (community members who are trained by Her Choice and volunteer for their own village) to put together appealing performances.

The actors show the public what parents can do to prevent young girls becoming pregnant, and that boys also play an important role. The decors and professional costumes draw in many spectators of all ages, also from surrounding villages. After the performance, group discussions are organized to further debate the themes from the play. These are supervised by 80 animators and by local experts who are now able to create their own plays.

In Ghana community members are also trained as animators to be a part of the so called Child Marriage Prevention Committees, to advocate for children’s’ rights. In Mali many parents have agreed to the use of contraceptive products by single girls, presented by the Her Choice partner organisations as a way to prevent teenage pregnancies and marrying off their daughters too young.

Community involvement

At one of the Her Choice Linking & Learning meetings the Nepalese local partner CWIN presented their experiences in addressing child marriage through ‘The Flower of Change’ (see picture), a tree that represented the root causes, interventions, outcomes and challenges regarding child marriage in Nepal.  The roots represent the root causes for child marriage: the community beliefs that if you marry before menstruation, you will go to heaven, the mind-set that girls are not meant to stay in their parents’ house, that  grandparents can marry off their grandchildren and they themselves will go to heaven, and the tradition of the dowry-system (the older the girl, the more dowry the family of the girl has to pay).

The leaves of the flower represent the interventions and achievements CWIN made: life skills training, adolescent forums and workshops for parents have led to increased school enrolment of girls, an increase of reporting cases in the CWIN child helpline and a behaviour change in the parents: they have started to act as a watchdog in the community and actively stop child marriages in their communities. Because of workshops with religious leaders, they act as change agents in the communities and have formed regional groups so that they can join forces at district level.

Still a challenge is the fact that some young Nepalese people cross the border to marry in India: there the legal age of marriage is 18 (instead of 20). Bangladesh, Ethiopia, and Pakistan recognize this border crossing as well. Keeping people informed and aware of the risks of child marriage could tackle this. The Her Choice activities can empower girls and boys to make other decisions, and help parents and communities to understand the negative effects of child marriage and to positive effects of marrying later.