Child marriage: what do social norms have to do with it?

Boys publicly make food in a cooking competition judged by girls in a village, Nepal. | Photo credit: CARE

What if we can shift behaviors at scale by focusing on perceptions rather than reality? In the Tipping Point initiative in Nepal and Bangladesh, CARE and local partners are making what we often think of as impossible into a possibility.

In several villages in Nepal, in less than two years, CARE in partnership with the Dalit Social Development Center and the Siddartha Samuyadayik Samaj has inspired adolescents to stop discriminating on the basis of caste or gender. In communities where boys had never set foot in the kitchen, they are now publicly making roti and curry in cooking competitions where the girls get to be judges. Slowly the community is starting to understand that dividing up work along gender lines is not natural but driven by society. As a result of these changes, a few boys have started taking on responsibilities of household chores and supporting their sisters and mothers.

Similarly, in remote villages in Bangladesh, adolescent girls who weren’t even allowed to go out of their homes unsupervised just a year ago are coming together and participating in football tournaments, with the support of their families and communities. As girls take on what have typically been seen as predominantly “male roles”, we are starting to see a shift in how communities view girls’ potential, as well as how girls view themselves. This is a wonderful entry point to expand upon and connect with issues concerning what girls can grow up to become.

We often think social change takes generations and a really long time. So how did CARE and partners facilitate such major changes in such a short time? This is what they said:

  1. We started with ourselves – by investing in the project team members at every level from the national to the local village level, and supporting them to reflect on their own perceptions and experiences around gender and power. By creating space for self-reflection on our own values around gender equality and norms, the work with communities became connected to creating change in our own lives. Click here for a video of staff in Bangladesh speaking about they themselves changed.
  2. By creating space for people from the community to re-imagine what is possible in their lives, identify what is blocking them, and creating their own solutions. Here’s an example from Nepal:

Chotkiramnagar Secondary School is the only secondary-level school in Chotkiramnagar Village Development Committee. Girls attending this school [like many other schools] were found to be leaving their classes in anticipation of starting their menstrual cycle or not coming to school altogether due to menstruation. After Tipping Point held a discussion on creating a child-friendly environment in school with the School Management Committee (SMC) in October 2015, the SMC has made sanitary pads available to girl students at the school itself and has also ensured a separate toilet for girls and boys and placed the door bolt low enough so that it is within the reach of even the youngest of girl students.

Photo credit: Tipping Point Project, CARE USA

Photo credit: Tipping Point Project, CARE Bangladesh

  1. By supporting new and existing change makers who are our peers and neighbors but also influential people like religious leaders. Click here for the inspirational story of one such religious leader who has now become a champion for girls’ rights and here for the story of Sabnam Begum, who is championing change for girls in her community.
  2. By creating public spaces to amplify visibility of the reimagined visions of what girls can do and what gender equality can look like. Cooking competitions, football games, street drama, and different public events provided this visibility of positive alternatives. See here for examples.
  3. By engaging the media to shine a light on champions and changes. Click here for newspaper and television coverage of the project’s activities.

By adding a social norms perspective to our programming, which includes traditional approaches focused on girls’ independence; their relationships with their parents, and putting the infrastructure in place in the community to provide support, we believe we are helping not just girls, but their entire communities to have reimagined visions about girls that are that are no longer just a possibility, but are instead a reality.

To learn more about the Tipping Point project, see this link.