Finding an ally: Building partnerships with the media on child marriage

In an effort to address community perceptions of child marriage and a lack of awareness about its associated health risks, the Society for Local Integrated Development (SOLID) Nepal held a workshop for journalists on the role that they can play in helping to raise awareness of child marriage.

Child marriage is illegal in Nepal, but the practice still occurs in large numbers. According to UNICEF as many as 51% of Nepalese girls are married by the time they reach 18. The Nepalese Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare estimates that up to 34% of new marriages in Nepal involve a girl under 15. Clearly, if the high rates of child marriage in Nepal are to decrease, legislation alone will not be enough – a wider effort is needed to change community attitudes towards the practice.

Mindful of this, SOLID Nepal, a member of ‘Balika Dulhai Hoinan’ (Girls Not Brides’ national partnership in Nepal) held a workshop in late June 2012 to train journalists on how to effectively report on health issues. Media plays a huge role in shaping opinions and, if properly presented, good journalism can help change entire communities’ perceptions towards child marriage.

Child marriage: a low priority issue for the media

Before the workshop, SOLID Nepal monitored several Nepalese newspapers and were concerned about their coverage of sensitive issues like child marriage and early pregnancy. They found that these were seen as low priority issues, both in terms of an article’s position on a page and in the wider newspaper.

SOLID also found that news coverage did not discuss the harmful consequences of child marriage, nor the laws in place that prohibit the practice. Further investigation revealed that articles tended to misinterpret medical information and often took a judgmental standpoint. At the SOLID workshop, participants shared that the problem is particularly acute in areas outside of the capital city, where journalists lack proper training to address sensitive issues.

Helping to improve the credibility of reporting on health issues

Progress is, however, being made. Participants at the workshop noted that health journalism in Nepal is still quite new, and is rapidly developing and improving. “News reports related to health are getting published on a daily basis these days,” remarked Padam Raj Joshi of the Annapurna Post. Atul Mishra, of Kantipur Daily added that “compared to the health journalism in the country of the past five years, there have been notable changes. Journalists are more diligent.”

By working in partnership, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and journalists can contribute to credible awareness-raising capable of reaching large numbers of people. NGOs cannot assume, however, that journalists know of the issues that surround early marriage. That is why workshops such as this play such an important role, offering organisations like SOLID Nepal an opportunity to help journalists understand the wide impact of child marriage and the importance of non-sensational, unprejudiced coverage. Participating journalists were told of the necessity to end child marriage in order to achieve the Millennium Development Goals and of the need for better coverage on the issue, especially in rural areas.

Building a constructive relationship with the media

Journalists at the workshop shared that they were willing to engage with non-governmental organisations on sensitive issues like child marriage, but expressed frustration that a mutually supportive relationship had not been established. One journalist asked why, when poor articles had been published on child marriage, those concerned did not send letters of complaint to editors? “They would have certainly learnt from it for the next time,” he added.

Dr Khem Karki from SOLID replied: “I have been continuously writing and sending letters to the editors as feedback but such letters are not prioritised… When I submitted a feedback letter against wrong practice of using the word ‘Hysteria’, I was pushed into a confrontation with its writer. There should have been professional debate not a personal confrontation.”

By bringing together journalists and NGOs to discuss these issues face-to-face, the workshop demonstrated the importance of building a constructive, rather than critical relationship with the media. SOLID Nepal has since been approached with requests to provide similar training to other groups of journalists, underlining the vital role that many people see for media in helping to change community attitudes as a way to address child marriage.

Engaging with the media and ensuring accurate coverage of child marriage is an approach relevant beyond Nepal. Journalists can become allies, and by building a constructive relationship with them, NGOs will gain the support of people who shape mass opinion on a daily basis. As the SOLID Nepal workshop demonstrated, an effective relationship with the media is invaluable.

Click here to read the full report on the workshop.

Child marriage: The bitter truth and its challenges: SOLID Nepal also hosted an advocacy workshop on child marriage in July 2012, bringing together public health officials, civil society and policy makers to discuss effective responses and strategies for addressing this issue.

Read more about progress in Nepal to end child marriage:

Read coverage of the event in the Himalayan Times.

IRIN News reports on Nepal: The Hidden Costs of Early Marriage

Samjhana Phuya from Nepal reflects on her grandmother’s marriage at 7, and her family’s generational journey to end child marriage. Child Marriage: A curse in the name of culture, was submitted as testimony at the UK’s APPG hearing on child marriage in June 2012 by the White Ribbon Alliance.