Child marriage

Grassroots movement building against child marriage in South Asia

Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan

Child marriage is a serious violation of girls’ human rights. It negatively affects the lives and futures of millions of children in South Asia, a region which has an estimated 285 million child brides. According to UNFPA, in Bangladesh, 59 per cent of women aged 20–24 were married before the age of 18. In Nepal, this reaches 40 per cent, and 27 per cent in India. And in Pakistan, one in three girls is married before the age of 18.

Many issues contribute to the high levels of child marriage in South Asia, including: rigid socio-cultural and religious norms and beliefs; the economic burden of raising a girl child (and the need to provide dowry); lack of education; fear of inter-caste marriage; safety concerns for girls who have reached puberty, especially in the context of vulnerability and lack of social services and opportunities; escape from conditions of poverty by young girls themselves; lack of appropriate laws and their effective implementation; as well as repressive patriarchal structures and systems.

Many initiatives in the region advocate for the eradication of child marriage, but these efforts cannot be sustained unless children and adolescents themselves, along with their families and community members, are aware of and empowered to fight child marriage.

SuPWR researchers are working in collaboration with several grassroots movements and networks that are advocating for the elimination of child marriage in Nepal, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. This blog post highlights their efforts, the backlash they face and the strategies they adopt.

Girls Rights Forum, Nepal

In Nepal, although the legal age of marriage is 20 years for both males and females, recent data shows that 10 per cent of women aged 20-24 were married by age 15 and 37 per cent by age 18. Child marriage is more prevalent in the southern regions due to economic, social, and cultural factors.

The Girls Rights Forum (GRF) is an organised network of 1500 adolescent girls in southern Nepal – Kapilvastu and Rupandehi – working to fight against child early and forced marriage (CEFM). The network has four major agendas: reduce child marriage, fight against mobility restrictions of adolescent girls, promote equitable education opportunities, and combat gender-based violence (GBV). GRF organises and enables adolescent girls to collectively advocate for their own rights and fight structural discrimination through policy advocacy, lobbying and other activities.

However, GRF members face much backlash and resistance, often from their own relatives and communities. They are questioned and vilified, and this sometimes takes an intense turn into intimidation. GRF members also encounter challenges in establishing credibility, especially with local government bodies. They are often not taken seriously because of their age, and not trusted enough as legitimate rights activists to be eligible for programmes, funds, or representation in various platforms and policy discussions on child rights and child marriage. In addition, GRF members often experience mobility restrictions and threats of violence.

To address this, GRF members engage with parents, men, boys, religious and community leaders, and government and non-government organisations (NGOs) through inter-generational dialogues, discussions, and workshops to transform harmful social norms related to child marriage and to gain trust and support. Many GRF members shared about how they have succeeded in gaining support from their families, in their collective movement building against child marriage.

GRF members also collaborate with Women’s Rights Organisations (WROs), national adolescents’ networks and international networks and alliances, such as Girls Not Brides (GNB), and Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs), to further amplify their voice and collective agency. This collaboration and alliance building has largely helped in gaining trust from local government bodies, and as a result, GRF members have secured government funding to conduct awareness and advocacy programmes on fighting child marriage.

GRF is now working to further expand its network and reach more marginalised adolescents girls at risk of child marriage through community awareness programmes, collaboration with national adolescent networks and using local media to promote and advocate about their work.

Girls not Brides Coalition Bangladesh

Girls not Brides (GNB) Bangladesh is a national partner of the Girls Not Brides Global partnership to eliminate child marriage. GNB Bangladesh has over 25 members ranging from small grassroots organisations to larger INGOs who share the common goal of ending child marriage.

GNB Bangladesh members face backlash from girls’ families and from community members. During awareness sessions, parents often agree to not marry off their young daughters but would end up doing so anyway. Some parents say that they want to follow Sharia rule (Islamic religious law). Household power dynamics also play a role – often, a father takes the decision to marry off his daughter and no one will go against his wish. Additionally, social perceptions around teenage romance, sexuality and relationships and linking a girl’s virtue with the family’s social reputation drives parents to marry off their adolescents. It is common for parents to forge birth certificates to enable them to marry their daughters off early.

Community and religious leaders also express opposing attitudes – on the one hand, they help the NGO prevent child marriage, yet, at the same time, advocate for early marriage. Additionally, social norms hamper girls’ mobility in the public sphere and limits their access to education.

However, the biggest backlash has been the special provision in the Child Marriage Restraint Act 2017, that states that marriage of a minor is not an offence if parents or guardians carry it out in the minor’s best interest.

To counter this backlash, GNB members have shifted their focus from a preventive approach towards changing social norms at the family level. They aim to create awareness among parents about the harmful consequences of child marriage, and are popularising the concept of consent and trying to establish a girl’s position as a right holder. They are creating spaces for adolescent and youth leadership and activism. For example, CARE Bangladesh has linked their youth leaders with Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, a prominent women’s rights organisation, for mentorship. CARE has formed the young volunteers into a new organisation named LOL (Living Out Loud). This national platform includes young women from Sunamganj, Rangpur and Dhaka and aims to pave way for girls’ integration in the overall movement against child marriage.

Child Rights Movement (CRM) and various anti-child marriage alliances in Pakistan

Because Pakistan has a federal structure, the struggle against child marriage straddles a number of different goals, depending on the provincial location. The CRM – a countrywide voluntary network of civil society organisations (CSOs) working on a range of child rights issues – is the lead organisation in the federal territory of Islamabad.

In Islamabad, CRM’s most immediate focus is on legislative reform for increasing the age of marriage for girls from 16 to 18, which draws from a broad consensus that the age of majority for men and women should be harmonised across all laws, including marriage. CRM believes that only if this consensus is formalised through the political process of law-making will grassroots organisations be able to effectively generate social legitimacy for their community-based work on child marriage, and to hold state actors accountable for violating the law.

Ironically, the most formidable backlash to CRM’s advocacy over the past decade has come from both the elected assemblies themselves (including the parliament or central legislature) and the Council of Islamic Ideology – an advisory constitutional body that holds political clout in thwarting legislation deemed to be un-Islamic by the religious right.

Presently, CRM is in the process of re-strategizing around this backlash by forming a coalition with women legislators in order to push for a more ‘neutral’ law reform that will make it mandatory for all individuals entering into marriage contracts across religious denominations to have registered national identity cards that are issued at the age of majority, i.e. 18 years.

The CRM network in Sindh has followed a very different path. It made huge gains in 2014 with the successful passage of the law restraining marriage for girls below the age of 18. However, child marriages continue at an alarming rate in the province, pointing to the twin problems of lack of implementation of the law – a big reason behind which is deliberate de-prioritization of child marriage – and lack of emphasis on, and drying up of funds for, community-based work to change mindsets and provide social services at the grassroots level. This strongly suggests that there is little substitute for community-level awareness in the struggle against child marriage, given the deep-seated patriarchal attitudes and structures across the state-society divide. Community-level awareness is defined broadly and includes a wide array of actors: from families, schools, and local religious leaders to state actors (such as police and district commissioners), to legal institutional actors (like district-level judges and local lawyers and bar associations).

A number of anti-child marriage alliances in Sindh today – that have mushroomed outside of the CRM – appear to agree that CSOs must engage and empower all relevant community and state actors in order to implement the law on the ground on behalf of under-age girls. Community-level backlash to these awareness-raising efforts manifests in a number of ways. Overt backlash comes in the form of threats of blasphemy allegations and vigilante violence. Less visible forms of backlash, no less damaging to the struggle against child marriage, include bureaucratic and legal decision-making by police, lawyers and judges to diminish the positive impact of the law. The various alliances working on child marriage in Sindh are advocating for ways to mobilise state resources for more effective implementation of the law.

Driving change at community level

Child marriage in South Asia is a complex issue rooted in gender inequality and patriarchal social norms and structures, further exacerbated by poverty and lack of education. Grassroots organisations that work directly with young brides and girls at risk of early marriage, their families, and the local community, are relentlessly working towards empowering young girls, driving awareness and change at a community level, and pushing for legislative reform. Sustainable eradication of child marriage requires the concerted effort of every stakeholder involved, while keeping girls at the center of every solution.