A Journey to Challenge Child Marriage in India

A rhythmic clap grows louder as the girls step into the room. They have travelled 1.500 kilometres across India to reach this destination – Selwada, a village a couple of hours outside of the city of Udaipur. As they enter the meeting venue, they are greeted by rows of smiling peers, applauding to welcome them. This is a session for the girls to share experiences on the issues that confront them – one being child marriage.

Since 2015 The Hunger Project India has worked to build support structures for young girls across the country to address the issue of early child marriage. According to UNICEF, almost half of all girls in India are married before the age of 18, despite the practice being outlawed. Two of the most affected states are Bihar in the east and Rajasthan in the west.

THP India’s vision was for girls from the two states to meet and exchange knowledge and experiences. In partnership with Sweden’s The Girl Child Platform, the idea was finally realised this summer. On July 12th, 25 adolescent girls (aged 14–19) from Bihar boarded a train to take them across India.

Fatma, 17, squares her shoulders a little as she stands up in front of the group. It is a humid day in Selwada and the ceiling fans are spinning frantically, but apart from that, it’s silent – the girls give each other their full attention. As a regular attendee at the meetings at home, Fatma has grown comfortable with speaking in front of others. This is not the first time she tells her story, one of a wedding ceremony she cannot even remember – that is how young she was when she was married. Yet, her voice still breaks a little, as she describes the struggle of refusing to leave her home to move in with a man she had never met.

As early as ten or twelve years old, girls can be expected to leave their homes for their in-laws’. A sense of alienation is shared by the girls of Bihar and Rajasthan. Many of them testify to a feeling of not belonging, of being outsiders both in their families and in their new homes.

Once the session is over, however, high spirits prevail. When the girls pour out of the venue, it is arm-in-arm with newfound friends. The comfort and strength of not being alone cannot be underestimated. By listening to one another, they can recognize the larger forces at play – as well as the means and tools to withstand them.

In so many ways, their traveling is a learning process. Veda Bharadwaja, programme officer for THP India, explains the importance of letting the girls internalise their journey in their own way: “They are the leaders of tomorrow. But they are active citizens today. You can’t look at girls as a group that needs to be rescued, you have to empower them to take their own stand. And they already have, many before they even came here”, she says.

These girls have broken the isolation of the walls of their households and expanded their horizons. Just as they were brave enough to board a train to change the tracks of their lives, we, as a global community, have to keep stretching out of our own confined bubbles. Creating common platforms to discuss the issues of girls’ rights allows us to address patriarchy as the global structure it is. We can learn tremendously by recognising the courage and perseverance of young girls across the world. For it is in the homes of these girls that development happens. Every day, as they negotiate for their freedom, they are pushing the agenda for their own human rights.

We have the power to support girls that are working towards the end of child marriage. We can amplify their voices by recognising that girls are experts on girls. And we should listen to them.

Explore the life changing journey from Bihar to Rajasthan under the hashtag #girlschangetracks and spread the message.

Gender Based Violence: What you need to know

What is Gender Based Violence?

‘Gender-based violence’ and ‘violence against women’ are terms used interchangeably. However, it is important to recognise that men can experience abuse from women, and abuse within same sex relationships happens at similar rates to heterosexual relationships.

That said, it has been widely acknowledged that the majority of people affected by gender-based violence are women and girls. This is due to unequal distribution of power in society between women and men. Women have fewer options and less resources to avoid abusive situations and seek justice. They also face challenges to their sexual and reproductive health, including forced and unwanted pregnancies, sexual assault, unsafe abortions, traumatic fistula, female genital mutilation (FGM), and higher risks of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV.

Youth for Change works in the UK, Tanzania and Bangladesh. We focus on three areas under gender based violence; child/early forced marriage, FGM and sexual consent.

What about Child/Early Forced Marriage and FGM?

Both child/early forced marriage (CEFM) and FGM are forms of gender based violence. They are driven by gender inequality and social expectations of what it means to be a girl. They are means of controlling girls’ sexuality often linked to cultural, religious or traditional social norms.

Some communities believe forced marriage and FGM is a way of providing a safer future for their daughters. In reality they are both violations of girls’ rights which have devastating consequences. Both forced marriage and FGM make girls more likely to drop out of school, face violence, health problems, and experience complications during pregnancy. Neither are religious practices, they are cultural traditions.

Approximately 700 million women alive today were married as children while 200 million women were cut. Both issues are widespread around the world, including  Europe, Africa, Asia and the US.

And what about Sexual Consent?

Educating young people on sexual consent prevents gender based violence. Consent is about communication. And it should happen every time. Giving consent for one activity, one time, does not mean giving consent for increased or recurring sexual contact. Having sex with someone in the past doesn’t give that person permission to have sex with you again in the future. When consent is not given, this leads to sexual assault or rape.

What links these forms of GBV together?

At the heart of consent is the idea that every person has a right to their own body. This basic principle applies to all forms of gender based violence. Including FGM and forced marriage.

What are we doing about it?

As Youth for Change we have been campaigning across the UK, Tanzania and Bangladesh, aiming to end FGM and forced marriage, and to make sure young people know their sexual rights. We look at these issues on a country-by-country basis. As youth activists we focus on the issues in the countries where we live. For example, the Bangladesh youth team focus on child marriage, as it is the most prevalent issue there.

Young people have a crucial role to play in ending gender based violence. We have been raising awareness about the impacts within communities and empowering young people to speak out against it. Working with our governments in each country, we are pushing for stronger policies and systems to prevent gender based violence happening in the first place.

In the UK, where I am an activist, we have a campaign called #TrainToProtect, which calls for compulsory FGM and forced marriage training for teachers across the UK. The new Sexual Relationships Education (SRE) Bill in the UK will see SRE taught to students in all schools. But in order to deliver quality SRE, including on FGM and forced marriage, and to respond to any disclosures from students – teachers must have the necessary training.

Want to help?

For those based in the United Kingdom: teachers and students can take part in our 2 min survey to have your say on SRE education!

For more information or support on any of these issues: 

If you’ve experienced sexual assault, you’re not alone. To speak with someone who is trained to help, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or chat online at online.rainn.org

For detailed guidance on consent visit Consent is Everything

Visit the NHS for detailed information on FGM

Childline information on Forced Marriage

GOV UK guidance on Forced Marriage

Gemma Munday is a member of the Youth for Change youth team, advocating against gender based violence. She also works in communications for youth-led development agency Restless Development. Here she supports young people around to world to capture and share their stories of change. Previously she has worked in UNICEF UK’s media team and was selected as a digital ambassador for UN Women. With a history of working with young people, Gemma has taught in an additional needs school and worked as a mentor for underprivileged youth.

India, Thank You for Re-energizing Me!

In front of me stands a woman in a blue saree. She is sharing her experiences as a female farmer in rural Tamil Nadu, India. We have gathered under a couple of trees to shield ourselves from the broiling sun and while we are talking, the cows standing in the yard are dipping their whole heads while drinking water from a bucket, trying to cool down in the summer heat.

As the woman in the blue saree tells me how old she was when she got married, I can only stare at her in disbelief. Of course I knew that child marriage exists in India, but this is the first time I’ve actually met a woman who got married when she was only thirteen years old. Although it has been prohibited in India since 2006, child marriage is still practiced regularly and India has the highest number of child brides in the world. According to Girls Not Brides, in 2016, 47% of all girls under 18 years old were already married. As I try to regain my composure and wrap my head around the fact that this woman was married when she was only thirteen, she just smiles and carries on talking.

The women I have met during my four months in India are some of the strongest women I have ever come across. Can you imagine being married at thirteen and having three children at the age of eighteen? For me, it is an unimaginable scenario – showing just how privileged I am to have the possibility to choose for myself what my (love)life will look like. However, for many women in India, choice is an impossibility. Furthermore, to speak about sex and reproductive health is still taboo and many girls do not know how their bodies actually work.

My time in India has made me realize, even more than before, how lucky I am to have grown up in a country where sex and reproductive health are relatively easy topics to bring up (even though improvements could still be made). It has also made me more convinced than ever before of how important the feminist struggle has been, and will continue to be for many years to come. It has reminded me that, as a feminist, I need to be responsive and listen in order to be able to choose my battles, without trying to impose my beliefs on others.

Intersectional feminism has taught me to be aware of my privilege, to listen and to understand that there are many different feminist struggles going on side by side. It has also taught me to realize when it is my place to speak and when it is not.

There are already a lot of initiatives in India working towards the abolition of child marriage (and other institutional inequalities), and sometimes the best thing to do is to show support and solidarity. As the world becomes ever more globalized and intertwined this will be important to remember as we go forward with the feminist movement. Because we must go forward!

Being in India has thought me a lot of things but most of all it has made me angrier than I ever was before. How can it be that I get to choose how to live my life when so many women and girls around the world can not choose how to live theirs? Of course, imperialism, colonialism, racism and capitalism can answer that question and explain why the world is so unfair. However, a theoretical answer is not enough. Action is needed. And it is needed now.

So, India, you mesmerizing, colorful, but oh-so-patriarchal country, thank you for all you taught me and all you made me realize about the world. But most of all, India, thank you for re-energizing me!

Involving Men and Boys in Efforts to Achieve a #BetterLife4Girls

One may wonder why men and boys involvement in matters like teenage pregnancies and child marriages is important. Well, it is clearly because behind every teenage pregnancy or child marriage, there is a male involved.

In the wake of the movement to end child marriage and teenage pregnancy, young people, parents, religious, cultural  and community leaders have to be called to action. Because these are issues that affect girls directly, it is of peculiar interest how pivotal the male voice has to be to make sure that the plight of a better life for girls is heard.

The fight for gender equality remains incomplete without male involvement as we stated earlier this year here on Girls Globe and we won’t repeat the statistics.

One part of of our agenda, from our recently concluded community dialogues in the eastern part of Uganda on ending under-age marriages and teenage pregnancies by Reach A Hand, Uganda supported by UNFPA Uganda, was to capture voices of men and boys as a way to continue involving them in anti child marriage and teenage pregnancy advocacy efforts.

Men and boys from the three Eastern region districts of Mayuge, Butaleja and Iganga, where the dialogues were conducted, showed keen interest in the topics, voicing similar concerns when it came to the causes of child marriages and teenage pregnancies. These included parental negligence, poverty, radical religious practices, minimal law enforcement, child labor, peer groups, western influence among others.

Mr. Muyagu Benard, the cultural leaders’ representative in Butaleja district noted that parents have shunned their responsibilities. “Parents do not spare time for their children, while others are too busy talk about sex education with their children,” he said, before condemning some for still believing in gaining riches through marrying them off, even at tender ages.

Mr. Gidudu Emmanuel, Officer in Charge Criminal Intelligence Butaleja district, warned that child marriages and teenage pregnancies lead to fatal damages like obstetric fistula, and in extreme cases, loss of their lives. He explained that these young girls’ bodies have not matured enough to carry the baby, let alone deliver it. This could lead to torn body tissues, a lot of blood loss and the possibility of death. He added that these girls get pregnant when they don’t even have enough food to feed neither themselves nor their babies and some of the children end up dying of hunger. He called upon everyone in the district to fight for change.

The Khadhi (Islamic leader) of Butaleja district, Sheikh Hajji Swaib Hussein Mukama, highlighted the fact that this is an era where girls should be taken to school because they are the mothers and leaders of tomorrow. He urged parents and fathers in particular, to support their children under the umbrella of religion to avoid teenage pregnancies.

The men in Mayuge pledged to stop individualizing children and vowed to make them a community responsibility so that there is joint effort in taking care of the girls and fighting against teenage pregnancies and child marriages.

On the other hand the young men advised their sisters to stay in school, avoid moving alone at night which can lead to being exposed to risks like rape and defilement. They further implored them to abstain, use condoms when old enough to have sex and to stand up for their rights in cases where they are forced into child marriages.

One of the young men, Desmond Ali, the chairperson Uganda National Students Association (UNSA) in Iganga district mentioned how he has already started contributing to bettering girls’ lives, by carrying a pad wherever he goes incase any of his female classmates need assistance. He also pledged to include child marriages and teenage pregnancy as an item agenda during the Annual Iganga UNSA meeting in February yext year.

Men and boys are often untapped-yet critical- resource in the fight against issues affecting society, especially under-age and child marriages. By not engaging them, we are stirring the pot deeper. Placing them at the forefront of this agenda, will transform respect for women and girls.

Featured Image: International Youth Foundation