From November 25th (International End Violence Against Women Day) through December 10th (International Human Rights Day), USAID joins the international community for 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence. During this time IMPACT will highlight USAID’s work to combat gender-based violence.
Child marriage has recently gained heightened attention by donors, researchers, activists, program implementers, and policymakers. The international community has increasingly recognized child marriage as a violation of girls’ rights, health, and well-being, and efforts to prevent and respond to child marriage have prioritized critical “hot spots” where the practice is particularly grave and widespread. Yet, it is also crucial to shed light on a current “blind spot” in these efforts: the role of boys in ending child marriage.
When males are included in strategies and interventions to address child marriage, the focus is mostly on the key role that men play as powerful gatekeepers: fathers and religious and community leaders, whose support must be galvanized to intervene on behalf of girls. The forward-looking USAID Vision for Action on Child Marriage, for example, includes engaging men as an important part of mobilizing communities to shift norms that perpetuate child marriage. But the Vision does not stop there; it further states that, “equally important is reaching out to boys at a young age to encourage equitable gender attitudes and norms so that they can be allies in preventing child marriage and change agents within their communities.” This aspect of male engagement is usually not highlighted in child marriage discussions, yet raises a vital question: What needs to happen to create a generation of boys that resists and rejects child marriage for themselves in the future?
This “demand-side” orientation requires long-term investments aimed at changing the social and behavioral gender norms that drive child marriage. What if all future men refused to marry a child bride? Though directly addressing this side of the equation is seldom mentioned, there are promising interventions with young girls and boys that seek to transform gender attitudes and behaviors with the goal of promoting gender equality more broadly. One example is the USAID-funded Gender Roles, Equality, and Transformation (GREAT) project.
Although GREAT does not directly address child marriage, it works with adolescents (ages 10-19) and their communities to reduce gender-based violence and improve reproductive health in Uganda. Building on the CHOICES project in Nepal, GREAT recognizes early adolescence as a window of opportunity—a time when the formation of gender norms and identities is taking place. The project utilizes participatory activities to engage young girls and boys in gender equality discussions. For example, project staff ask young girls and boys to pile-sort cards representing various household and community tasks, to show who is responsible for them. Girls and boys (including sisters and brothers) see the pile of tasks assigned to girls steadily grow larger than the boys’ pile. The activity prompts conversations about fairness, as boys remark on the larger burden carried by their sisters.
These types of “a-ha” moments are crucial entryways to deeper critical reflections that can begin a journey towards gender equality. By tapping into young boys’ sense of justice at a very young age, interventions such as these, which seek to transform gender norms early in the process of childhood development, hold the promise of shaping a future generation of men as allies in wiping out child marriage globally.