Last week India made the baffling decision not to co-sponsor a United Nations-led resolution calling for the elimination of early marriage. One hundred and seven countries sponsored the first-of-its-kind proposal, but India—the world’s leader in early marriage and where half of all women and girls are married before they reach 18—was not among them.
As advocates who have spent the past two years studying what motivates early marriage in India, we consider this a deeply distressing move that sends the wrong message and does nothing to help the thousands of girls and young women who are married off every year with little or no say in the matter.
The formative research recently released by Breakthrough—and undergirding our new Nation Against Early Marriage campaign—made this clear: We must engage men—especially fathers—to challenge the cultural norms and beliefs and deeply rooted sexual fears that perpetuate early marriage. The fact that early marriage has been illegal in India for a century clearly is not enough. India should be calling for efforts that broaden and innovate approaches to ending early marriage. Government leaders have missed an important opportunity to drive needed culture change. The way to do that is to engage men and young men, fathers and fathers-to-be—to motivate and equip them to lead change.
Such change is desperately needed. 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.
Early marriage means an early, and devastating, start to a cascade of related and lifelong human rights violations: threats to sexual, reproductive, and maternal health; domestic violence; denial of education, mobility, self-determination, and more. It decimates the human capital of individuals, families, communities, even countries.
The practice will end only when fathers and fathers-to-be decide it is no longer acceptable. Kamla’s story illustrates this uncomfortable truth. Kamla (name changed) lives in the Indian state of Jharkand, which has one of the highest rates of early marriage in India—or anywhere. Like millions of young women, Kamla was married off when she was 12 or 13 years old.
"When my parents mentioned marriage I had no idea what ‘marriage’ even meant,” she says.
And like so many early marriages, hers was fraught with violence and abuse.
But here’s where Kamla’s story is different. Upon hearing of the abuse, Kamla’s father took her back in.
Kamla’s father emerged from the experience a changed man. “I have a relative who was going to marry his daughter off at an early age,” he says. “I stopped them. I will not allow the mistake I made with my daughter to happen to anyone else in front of my eyes.”
We undertook our research in part to understand why men like Kamla’s father are such a rarity. We wanted to understand why communities continue the practice, despite knowing it’s illegal—and to identify promising entry points for change.
Our research shows that fathers—who make all the decisions regarding early marriage—see early marriage as a way to keep their daughters safe.
We know already that early marriage is perpetuated by many powerful and intertwined drivers: economics, tradition, and the low status of girls and women. We know we must continue to create opportunities for girls’ education and livelihood; local, regional, national, and global initiatives with this focus have seen some success. But our research showed we must do even more.
This points to our second research finding: Early marriage is inextricably linked to fears surrounding girls’ sexuality. This means that, while education and skills are necessary, they may not be enough. In some cases, for example, education makes girls more marriageable.
Fathers are motivated to push their daughters into early marriage in part to keep girls safe from persistent and real threats of harassment and sexual assault. But they also want to keep girls safe from any action—including platonic intermingling with boys—that could tarnish the family’s "honor." Here, it becomes clear that the driving paternal concern is not simply for a daughter's safety. Or, for that matter, for her rights.
In the communities we studied, marriage is the only acceptable space for male-female interaction. This taboo even on platonic contact means that girls and boys never explore healthy, mutual communication, respect or sexuality. Result: Consent issues, harassment, and related problems are more likely to arise. (In one of the communities we studied, a full 90 percent of girls viewed the men in their lives as predators.) These threats lead to stricter controls, generally early marriage.
We must break this cycle. Only when we address these taboos head on can we begin to dismantle them. We must be sensitive, but not tentative, unlike the Indian government this week.
We must meet fathers where they are, understanding the pressure on them to do what is expected, what is “best,” and what is “safe.” We must invite fathers to see that early marriage is more dangerous to families and communities than any real or perceived threats to their “honor.” We must work with them to build a new model, one in which girls are not seen as risks or burdens, but as human beings with equal and intrinsic worth, agency, rights and potential. We must inspire and enable them—including those in our governments—to become leaders like Kamla’s father by challenging the norm and spreading the word that families and communities that do what is “best” are families and communities that value girls.
Mallika Dutt is founder, president, and CEO of Breakthrough. Sonali Khan is vice president and India country director of Breakthrough.
Breakthrough is a global human rights organization seeking to make violence and discrimination against women and girls unacceptable. Working out of centers in India and the U.S., we use the power of arts, media, pop culture, and community mobilization to inspire people to take bold action to build a world in which all people live with dignity, equality, and justice.