Making the most of what we know: Exploring the link between child marriage and sexuality through an int’l learning event
Sarara Musharrat Turna
Child marriage is a harmful practice which minimizes girls’ voices and choices for their education, health and wellbeing. Ending child marriage is part of the sustainable development goals agenda and the practice has decreased over the past decades. Unfortunately, the Covid-19 crises have undone much of the progress made especially due to the closure of schools. There are many causes of child marriages including more visible causes such as poverty or lack of education, but underlying these causes there are deep rooted norms and values about gender roles and girls’ sexuality. For example, high value is placed on girls’ virginity, which increases the value parents place on an early marriage.
Discussing norms and values around sexuality is taboo in many countries, which has resulted in a knowledge gap on the topic. To overcome that the More Than Brides Alliance (MTBA), a global partnership between Save the Children, Oxfam, Simavi and Population Council, has been stimulating learning on this topic. Last week, from March 2 to 4, 2021, Bangladesh joined an international event that was organized and facilitated by Population Services and Training Center (PSTC), a well-known development NGO in Bangladesh from a hotel in Dhaka.
Researchers, civil society practitioners, policy makers and young activists were brought together across nine countries, namely Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, Malawi, Mali, Nepal, Niger, Pakistan and Uganda. All the country participants explored the link between child marriage and sexuality at national level and online with participants in eight other countries. It was an exciting opportunity to learn from the differences and similarities around the world. Key discussions during the learning event focused on – building on youth and community knowledge, engaging parents, the limitations of laws and using language that can make discussing sexuality drivers of child marriages acceptable. We expect this learning to contribute to improved policies and practices around the world to make ending child marriages by 2030 a reality.
Together with all country partners, like PSTC, we brought together a wealth of expertise on child marriage including girls themselves, which was a great opportunity to focus on those underexplored underlying drivers of child marriages related to girls’ sexuality, said Jan Apperloo, Learning Coordinator for the More Than Brides Alliances based in the Netherlands.
Sigma Ainul, Senior Program Officer, Population Council, said, “Beliefs and norms related to girls’ sexuality drive the child marriage practice differ from one setting to the other, despite we find clear interconnectedness. In the context of Bangladesh and many south Asian countries – linkage of child marriage with girls’ sexuality takes the form of preserving girls’ marriageability, virginity, and family honour.”
“Voices of the girls need to be heard to tackle the issue of child marriage. In most of the cases, these girls become the victim of their parents’ wrong decision. When they are yet to learn about their body, their rights, they are pushed to become sexually active in the name of ‘marriage’,” opined Mahbuba Kumkum, Program Manager, Simavi NL.
Dr. Noor Mohammad, Executive Director, Population Services and Training Center, Bangladesh, said, “Child marriage is definitely a sensitive but important topic that needs to be addressed to eliminate. Based on our international learning event outcomes we enriched our knowledge base and inspired to have necessary policy updates and ensured its proper implementation. The global success stories would help us devise upcoming programs to address child marriage issue.
The learning event revealed that though child marriage rates are going down globally, however, global statistics hide the fact that there is not a universal trend. In many countries hot spots remain where child marriage rates are stagnant, going up (in crisis situations) or going underground in response to law enforcement. Although there is a good understanding of the diverse drivers of child marriage, the evidence and experience based on what works in these different situations is not as strong as we would like (and need!) it to be. Especially gender inequality and concerns related to female sexuality are consistently powerful drivers of child marriage across different contexts.
Social norms and taboos are often quoted as the most difficult barrier to overcome. While no two contexts are the same, there are similarities across geographies from which we can learn. Therefore, the More Than Brides Alliance initiative to explore the links between female adolescent sexuality and child marriage was quite encouraging to lay a more solid base so that organizations can implement and advocate for interventions that are grounded in promising practices and empirical evidences. The participants across the countries were very much excited about the event process and outcomes.
In the context of Bangladesh, parents resort to early marriage to protect against the possibility that their daughters might engage in sexual activity and bring shame to the family. And then marriageability is also linked with economic interest of family by the fact that dowry price increases with increasing age of the girl, as older the girl higher the chance of engagement of love, sexual relationship with boys and lesser marriageability.
Threat and/or fear of sexual violence and to fall prey of predatory behavior by men and boys is another major driver of child marriage in the context of Bangladesh. The physical changes girls undergo at puberty provoke fear and anxiety that girls are now at increased risk of unwanted sexual attention or assault. Parents see marriage as a means of protecting their daughters’ sexual security. Though it does not work as linearly as expected.
So, to be really effective in reducing child marriage, in addition to alleviating poverty for girls and their families, educating and creating opportunities for girls, it is also very much necessary to engage communities in difficult conversations related to gender inequality and the fear and desire to control of female sexuality. Because, no matter how much we want to shun this out, it is much there and works as a key underlying driver for child marriage for girls.