Child marriage is driven by centuries-old gender norms and inequalities. It is a tradition so entrenched that it often goes unquestioned.
So how do you change traditions or beliefs that are considered normal? How do you change not only what people know and believe, but what they do? These are the questions that CARE International is trying to answer.
In Bangladesh and Nepal, two countries with the highest rates of child marriage in the world, CARE’s “Tipping point” project is an exercise in creating a society where girls are equally valued and child marriage no longer exists.
Here is how they are going about it.
Cooking isn’t just for girls
Ending child marriage begins in the home. In many communities, girls’ days are filled with household tasks - cleaning, cooking, caring for their siblings - time that could be spent studying.
Once married, girls are expected to help their mothers-in-law look after the home and struggle to keep up with school - if they’re allowed to continue at all.
In most homes, this is the traditional division of labour. But there are exceptions: families where men and boys carry out traditionally “female” tasks. CARE decided to hold them up as examples for the whole community.
That is how Amra-o-Korchi (“we are also doing” in Bangla) was born. The campaign pitched pairs of men and boys against one another in public competitions to see who would be better at cooking, stitching or doing the laundry.
The competition was a chance to value “female” tasks and celebrate men who crossed gender boundaries. Most importantly, it started a community conversation about responsibilities in the home:
“People took this type of thing badly badly and made negative comments like, “The world is ruined, now women order men to work.” But now, we do not hear that type of comments from people.” 25-year-old woman
Get men talking over a cup of tea
In rural Bangladesh, men looking for a rest or a chat often stop by tea stalls. The familiarity and comfort of these spots make them ideal locations to start conversations on gender equality between men. Which is exactly what CARE did.
Volunteers moderated conversations on girls’ education, sports and child marriage, among many others. The idea was to make gender part of everyday discussions and get men, who usually hold a disproportionate amount of power over women and girls, to imagine different futures for them.
Tea stalls became places to share examples of how men supported the women and girls in their lives:
“I will not marry off my daughter before 18. I have a dream to send her in town for her education. For education, girls and boys are equal. I will not treat my daughter unjustly.” 46-year-old man.
Little by little, men warmed up to the idea of gender equality and changed their behaviours:
“My friend enrolled his daughter in class 6. Previously, he thought primary education was enough for her. That is why he stopped her going to school. But after the discussion, he realized his fault and admitted her again.” 40-year-old man.
Pass the ball
While men and boys talk about gender, girls are busy learning how to play football. In many communities, this is not easy. As girls enter adolescence they are not expected to occupy public spaces the way boys do. Especially married girls:
“When I saw them play football, I wanted to play. But now I am married and have children. If I play, people will say negative things. Even my husband would not accept it.” 19-year-old woman.
To counter the stigma, CARE needed to recruit “early adopters” of girls’ sports - supportive parents and girls interested in football - to convince the rest of the community to let girls play.
In the end, there wasn’t one football team but seven! The final tournament was a source of curiosity and excitement in multiple villages, drawing large crowds and letting girls show what they were capable of.
And because girls’ sports is a contentious issue, community dialogues afterwards gave people a space to process their feelings and talk about it:
“Now if my sister or cousin want to play football, I will let them do it even if people take it negatively. Because they will taunt them at first, but later they will be appreciated.” 20-year-old woman.
Change doesn't happen overnight. It happens one conversation at a time.
CARE’s Tipping Point project is a great example of how to challenge social norms that sustain child marriage - by changing men’s behaviour in the home, encouraging positive peer pressure, celebrating “early adopters” in the community, or empowering girls directly.
Check out CARE’s 8 design principles for social norm programmes below.
Visit https://caretippingpoint.org/innovation/ for more information about the programme.
In the time it has taken to read this article 12 girls under the age of 18 have been married
Each year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18
That is 23 girls every minute
Nearly 1 every 3 seconds
Girls Not Brides
Ettie is Communications Associate at Girls Not Brides: the Global Partnership to End Child Marriage.