This article was originally published on the Guardian Global Development Professionals Network.
Early marriage – is it a child rights issue? A human rights issue? A health issue? It is all of those. But above all it is a gender issue, closely related to the problems that we're trying to face in gender rights overall – the low status of girls and women, the idea that they are an economic burden, this whole question of the honour and sexuality of girls.
In essence, early marriage happens because girls are deemed a burden.
In essence, early marriage happens because girls are deemed a burden.
They are not valued as much as boys and have no say in the decisions that affect their lives such as when or whom to marry. Their sexuality is viewed as a source of shame and is bound with family honour. They are rarely aware of, nor can they assert, their sexual and reproductive health rights.
To end early marriage we cannot rely on laws alone. They are important, but rates of early marriage in India remain stubbornly high despite the laws that have been in place for decades.
Nor will relying on education for girls be enough as secondary education is not immediately available to many of those who are vulnerable to early marriage. But there is, however, a lot that we can do to address the position and status of girls in society.
What will it take to end child marriage in India?
At Breakthrough, we started working on early marriage in 2011. We conducted formative research and baseline studies across three districts in the states of Bihar and Jharkhand in India, looking at the causes and impact of early marriage and identifying the civil society partners we should work with to address the problem.
We spoke to all those who will be crucial in leading change – fathers, mothers, community leaders, boys and girls – who informed us about the context in which early marriage takes place.
Based on our research, we've launched a pilot programme called 'Nation Against Early Marriage' in Bihar and Jharkhand. We realised that while the issue of early marriage of girls had been part of campaigns that focussed on addressing key issues like infant mortality, malnutrition or women's health, there were no campaigns that addressed early marriage as a social issue that required intervention.
At work are deeper social prejudice and the denial of the right to choice for young girls.
Interventions designed around early marriage rarely looked at the issue through the prism of gender and sexual rights. In several communities of rural India, early marriage is the norm – a social practice followed as a tradition.
Our research shows that the prevalence of this tradition is not due to the lack of awareness about the legal validity or legitimacy of this practice. At work are deeper social prejudice and the denial of the right to choice for young girls.
"A Nation Against Early Marriage"
Breakthrough's campaign was designed to reach communities – especially fathers and other key male family members who make major decisions that impact the family. In the traditionally patriarchal Indian family, marriage of girls is largely decided by the senior male members of the family.
Therefore, the inefficacy of the legislations is also due to the dearth of complaints lodged by affected girls against their fathers, uncles or brothers – generally, the breadwinners of the family.
As we tried to create consensus within the family over early marriage, our message had to be empathetic in tone. It shows respect for the role played by fathers and their responsibility towards their daughters. We tell them that we understand that parents have their daughters' welfare in mind but that their decision to marry them off does not help their daughters in the long run.
We tell fathers of the dangers for girls of early pregnancy and of their vulnerability to domestic violence. We meet fathers where they are, understanding the pressure on them to do what is expected, what is "best," and what is "safe." We invite them to see that early marriage is more dangerous to families and communities than any real or perceived threats to their "honour."
We want girls to be not seen as risks or burdens, but as human beings with equal and intrinsic worth, agency, rights and potential.
Getting the community on board
In such a complicated scenario, we realised that influencing the decisions taken by the community required taking them into confidence. We used the medium of the Theatre of the Oppressed – a theatrical form popularised in Brazil that encourages interactivity between the performers and the audience.
The performance is paused at critical moments to bring the audience into discussions. It is an effective way of helping parents and other key stakeholders to understand the impact of early marriage on girls and the wider community. The free-flowing structure of this theatre form helps young girls vocalise their concerns and talk openly about their experiences.
Our community outreach also uses video vans to share messages about how girls and boys are raised in the family, why families marry off their daughters, why these aren't sound reasons and how early marriage inhibits the rights and opportunities of girls.
Civil society, government bodies and local administration are also encouraged to participate in these initiatives. The scale of the problem of early marriage means that civil society groups need to come together and link services offered for the benefit of girls.
During the research stage, we identified partner organisations based on their ability to deliver the core messages of the campaign. But, like many other organisations our biggest challenge to scaling up our model remains the inadequacy of available resources.
Ultimately, ending child marriage will happen at the local level
How will we know whether our model has worked? Findings of the baseline survey conducted in the districts where our programme is being implemented will be used to to assess whether attitudes have changed.
We are working towards the increase in three key indicators: the average age of marriage of girls, the average years of education received by them and the usage of government incentives to delay age of marriage for girls. Decrease in three other indicators will also be measured to gauge the efficacy of our interventions – incidence of early marriage, teen pregnancies and infant and maternal mortality rate.
Over the past two years we've seen increasing national and international attention to early marriage. Ultimately, however, change will come at a local level when all those who have a role to play in girls' lives understand and respect their rights.
We hope that our programme model will cause a shift in attitudes where early marriage is not only deemed unnecessary in social or economic terms, but where it is no longer acceptable at all.
Watch: A Young Bride Fights Back - A Nation Against Early Marriage
In the time it has taken to read this article 69 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
Sonali Khan is vice president and country director at Breakthrough. Follow @sonalikhanon Twitter.