Addressing the Root Causes of Early and Child Marriage

Since 2013, The Kendeda Fund has been on a philanthropic journey to address the issue of early- and child-marriage (ECM) so prevalent in South Asia and around the world. Nearly five years into the work, I am simultaneously more confident that sustainable progress can be achieved and more humbled by what it will take to get us there.

When we started our girls’ rights and ECM work, we came into it with an assumption that change, to be effective, lasting and true, had to be community driven and bottom-up. It is a value that cuts across all of our programs in one form or another. So why should it be any different in South Asia?

Reflections from recent trips to Nepal, India and Bangladesh, however, have helped me to see the community-driven change we want to support in a subtler, more nuanced light.

The best approach, we now believe, is a community-led model that addresses root causes of early- and child-marriage, including patriarchal beliefs about girls’ bodies and sexuality. But it is a model that is built by and for politicized collectives of girls, rather than merely collections of girls whose best interests are decided and advocated for in more traditional, predictable, top-down ways.

Three lessons learned help illustrate what I mean:

  • Let’s talk about sex. In most communities (not just poor ones), three beliefs perpetuate early- and child-marriage: restrictive views regarding girls’ honor, the purity of their bodies, and the dangers of adolescent sexuality. Sadly, until entire communities are willing to confront these topics with sensitivity and candor, the practice of ECM will persist. Change requires building the capacity of community activists (groups like TARSHI) with the courage, confidence, and capacity to address these subjects head-on.
  • Girls need the protection of law, but not always in the ways you might think. Many ECM advocates focus on the minimum age for marriage. It is an understandable strategy, but one that sometimes misses the mark. The reality is that many countries already have strong laws about the minimum marriage age, yet massive ECM problems persist. The more applicable laws to expand or improve include: requiring comprehensive sexuality education in school; ensuring girls have access to contraception and mental health services; safeguarding girls who flee forced marriages; and enabling the transfer of property rights to girls as well as boys.
  • Traditional definitions of honor can be challenged without destroying families and communities. Traditional definitions of honor and the “appropriate” role girls should play in society are deeply held values in many countries. I have seen firsthand how one father’s violent opposition to his daughter learning how to drive a taxi in Delhi, turned to pride over her ability to buy the family a home and pay for schooling for herself and siblings. Their family unit was transformed, albeit painfully. But rather than abandon their values, they came to rethink and accept the daughter’s familial responsibility and contributions in a new light.

We have a tremendous amount still to learn of course. But five years into the work, these essential early lessons are coming into focus.

The most significant successes that we’ve seen on ECM tend to emerge from girl-centered, girl-led collectives who have gone through a feminist analysis of their situations. This approach tends to leave the organization better prepared to advocate locally and (over time) nationally, for more equitable laws and access to critical resources.

When we, as funders, meet these girls’ groups, our job should be to ask the hard questions about how they are structured, who makes decisions, and to what extent they are politically empowered to be agents of change versus just being the passive beneficiaries of a traditional NGO program.

Dena Kimball is a member of The Philanthropy Workshop, and Executive Director and Fund Advisor for Girls’ Rights at The Kendeda Fund.

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