"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." - Sonali Khan, Breakthrough India
As part of its mission to prevent violence against women and girls by transforming the norms and cultures that enable it, Breakthrough is working within communities in the Indian states of Bihar and Jharkhand, which have among the highest rates of early marriage (sometimes referred to as "child marriage") in the country, to delay the age of marriage. Through national mass media, street theatre, community engagement, youth leadership training, and more, Nation against Early Marriage is designed to raise awareness of the consequences of early marriage and build cultural support for ending the practice.
Breakthrough India started working on early marriage in 2011. The organisation conducted formative research and baseline studies across 3 districts in the states of Bihar and Jharkhand, looking at the causes and impact of early marriage and identifying the civil society partners they should work with to address the problem. Breakthrough spoke to fathers, mothers, community leaders, boys, and girls - who informed them about the context in which early marriage takes place. Drawing on this research, Breakthrough has set about tackling early marriage with a 3-pronged approach:
- Mass media campaigns to create awareness around early marriage and ignite public dialogue;
- Direct interaction through large-scale outreach campaigns to provide action points and generate discussion on the ground; and
- Training of influential community members to create local actors for social change.
To cite a specific example of one activity, the project has 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 used here as a 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. The community outreach element 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.
Key strategies shaping all Nation against Early Marriage activities include:
- Reaching out specifically to men and boys as leaders of change, training them to be leaders in challenging early marriage and for change that supports human rights and well-being for all. "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."
- Focusing on gender and sexuality: "Interventions must include but go beyond increasing girls' access to schools and skills. They must position girls and young women as full human beings with intrinsic value and inalienable human rights. An approach that includes and addresses gender and sexuality stands to challenge norms, break taboos, and pinpoint the deepest roots of this practice, creating an environment for deep, sustainable change."
- Calling the problem "early marriage" (not "child marriage") in order to address and emphasise the full range and personhood of the young people affected by it.
Click here to access the Nation against Early Marriage website, which includes interactive features such as a blog and various videos to view, including the one below.
Girls, Gender, Rights
Indian law says that marriage of a girl below 18 years of age is a crime. However, Breakthrough research revealed that the median age for marriage for girls in Bihar was 15.1 for respondents aged 20-49 and the median age of marriage for the same group in Jharkhand was 16.2.
According to Breakthrough, globally, "between 2011 and 2020, if current rates hold, more than 140 million girls will marry before age 18. That translates to 14.2 million girls annually - or 39,000 every day. Of these, 50 million will be under the age of 15. That adds up to a serious global crisis. Early marriage is a profound violation of the human rights of girls. It also means an early, and devastating, start to a cascade of related human rights violations - threats to sexual, reproductive, and maternal health; domestic violence; denial of education, mobility, self-determination, and more - that last a lifetime and cost girls, families, communities, and nations inestimable human capital."
Supported by the Oak Foundation, the Human Dignity Foundation (HDF), and the Ford Foundation