Breakthrough's Nation Against Early Marriage Campaign Targets Fathers in India

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New report’s key findings: fathers and communities believe early marriage “protects” girls from harassment, assault, “dishonor”

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Breakthrough’s study finds that early marriage, and the norms and beliefs that drive it, are deeply rooted in fears surrounding girls’ sexuality.

Following two years of in-depth, on-the-ground research, global human rights group Breakthrough is announcing the launch of its Nation Against Early Marriage campaign in India and the distribution of its findings worldwide. Early marriage — defined for girls as marriage before the legal age of 18 — represents an early start to a series of human rights violations that affect girls and women throughout their lives. In India, which leads the world in early marriage, 25,000 girls a day are married with little or no say in the matter. Globally, 60 million girls have been forced to become brides. If trends continue, by 2020 50 million girls will be married before their 15th birthday.

Breakthrough’s campaign strategy emerged from the findings of its two-year study in the states of Bihar and Jharkhand, which -- despite wide awareness that the practice is illegal -- have among the highest incidence of early marriage in India. The study sought to explore the underlying motivators among communities, and to offer possible entry points for lasting change.

The economic and cultural drivers of early marriage are well-documented. Breakthrough’s study revealed an additional important motivator: Fathers — who make all the decisions regarding early marriage — see early marriage as a way to keep their daughters safe.

To be sure, as recent headlines from India can attest, fathers’ fears for their daughters’ safety are in part founded. But there’s more to it than that.

Breakthrough’s study finds that early marriage, and the norms and beliefs that drive it, are deeply rooted in fears surrounding girls’ sexuality.

Families marry daughters early not only to limit the burden of dowry – which increases as girls get older – but also, they believe, as a way of preventing premarital sex and pregnancy, or even forbidden platonic intermingling between the sexes. Such activities, or suspicions thereof, stand to bring lasting “shame” and “dishonor” to a girls’ family.

Parents also believe that marriage will protect girls from the very real risk of sexual harassment or assault. In the communities Breakthrough studied, marriage is the only acceptable space for male-female interaction. This taboo on even 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. Indeed, in one community Breakthrough studied, a full 90 percent of girls reported that they regard the men in their lives as predators. This threat, real and perceived, leads to stricter controls -- as in marriage -- and perpetuates a vicious cycle.

Parents in the communities Breakthrough studied recognize that early marriage is illegal and, to some degree, that it is harmful, limiting girls’ opportunities and risking their health (as well as that of their own babies and children). Yet deeply rooted norms, biases, and traditions perpetuate the practice.

“Only when we normalize, value, and promote healthy communication and respect between the sexes can we break the cycles that perpetuate early marriage,” said Breakthrough VP and India country director Sonali Khan.

“The topic of girls’ sexuality is taboo – and that is the problem. It is our challenge to address it head on,” said Breakthrough president and CEO Mallika Dutt. “Only when we confront these deep norms and biases – which arise from the devaluing of women and girls -- can we break the cycle of early marriage. We need to work in and with communities to build a new model, one in which girls are not seen as risks or burdens, but as people with equal and intrinsic worth and rights. And for that, we need the partnership and leadership of those with the most power to seed change: fathers, and fathers-to-be.”

Numerous efforts to address early marriage focus on providing girls with education and skills. Breakthrough’s campaign aims to complement and expand on those initiatives. However, Breakthrough’s research also revealed that -- in the communities studied, and those like them -- such an approach requires nuance. In some cases, for example, education actually makes girls more marriageable.

Early marriage is a profound violation of the human rights of girls and represents a serious global crisis. Girls who are married early are cut off from educational opportunities and often suffer psychological trauma, domestic violence, high rates of mortality due to premature and continuous childbearing, and high rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). The effects of these injustices can last a lifetime and can decimate the human capital of girls, families, communities and nations.

In other words, early marriage is anything but “safe.”

Breakthrough’s campaign and on-the-ground work seek to position men and young men as part of the solution. Says Dutt: “It is fathers who make the marriage decisions, with little or no input from wives or daughters. It is young men who will become those fathers. We must enable and empower them to go against the grain, to say, ‘In order to do what’s best for my daughter, I will not marry her early.’ Only then can we create an environment for change and trigger the cultural tipping point we need.”

Breakthrough also notes that changing the common terminology around the issue is key to making change. “Only when we say ‘early’ rather than ‘child’ marriage are we able to address and emphasize the full range and personhood of the young people affected by the practice,” Dutt said. “9-year olds are forced into marriage, but so are 17-year-olds. Rather than conflate or infantilize them, we must view them as a wide spectrum of young people with varying needs, developing desires, and emerging autonomy.”

Breakthrough’s campaign tools include street theater; mass and multi-media; human rights and leadership trainings for young people; celebrity spokespeople including Irrfan Khan (“Life of Pi,” “Slumdog Millionaire”), engagement with key stakeholders in community, state, and national government; and partnership with other local, national, international, and global groups addressing the issue. To hear how one young bride is fighting back, click here. To learn about how one mother is ensuring her daughter isn’t married early as she was, click here.


Breakthrough ( is a global human rights organization that uses the power of arts, media, pop culture, and community mobilization to inspire people to take bold action for dignity, equality, and justice. We work through centers in India and the U.S. to end violence and discrimination against women worldwide and promote human rights for all.

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Erin White
Camino Public Relations
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