Child Marriage Series Part 2

Rights at Risk: Strategies for Transformative Change

By: Surbhi Mahajan

Given the complex scenario, adolescent girls and young women need to be strategically engaged. Several studies by renowned feminist scholars and practitioners have shown at length the critical need for young girls and women to recognise themselves as citizens with rights, agency and leadership for any degree of change to become possible. For instance, Kabeer (2001)[1] speaks in terms of “the expansion in people’s ability to make strategic life choices in a context where this ability was previously denied to them.” She and Batliwala further argue that any idea of change in the status quo would require systemic transformation in both the patriarchal structures, but fundamentally in those supporting them (Kabeer 2001; Batliwala 1994[2]; 2013[3]). Also, G. Sen (1993) emphasises that what is essentially needed is an “altering of the relations of power…which constrain women’s options and autonomy and adversely affect health and well-being.”[4] Situated within a human rights framework, any strategic intervention geared towards changing norms must:


  • ensure and recognize rights to mobility, voice, agency and justice for individuals
  • promote and campaign for such rights
  • create programming which enables individuals to understand and analyse their own reality and identify the changes they would like to see
  • construct programing which simultaneously engages with social norms and social change strategies

In light of the above, strategies would then broadly operate at multiple levels –

  1. Sensitization and Awareness about structural defects that sustain the status quo: This must be carried out at two levels: 1) working directly with adolescent girls and young women; arming them with a simple language of rights that can be used for articulation of their needs, enhancing their understanding of right to physical integrity, building their agency and capacity to aspire and their self-efficacy as a means to strengthen their ability to question and resist oppressive social structures; 2) facilitating conversations with families (boys and men) and community (including institutional linkages) to ensure greater responsiveness and sensitivity to girls’ and women’s rights. Â
  2. Creating legal awareness: Raising awareness about various legal provisions and acts including how to report when one comes across incidents of child marriage taking place in the community; enabling individuals and communities to seek legal redress which is affordable and non-exploitative.
  3. Building capacities of women’s rights groups and frontline defenders as important stakeholders, while working in the community with budget constraints, so that such groups and individuals can mobilise and build awareness of their constituencies. Â
  4. Create innovative interventions regarding changing social norms such as the use of community radio programs, or sports like football[5], for instance, run by young women from the community. Such interventions would provide mentorships and support in producing content that brings concepts such as human rights, bodily integrity, and access to health and hygiene, to the forefront, thus generating further conversations on these issues across the community.
  5. Documentation and dissemination: Documentation of the processes with both qualitative and quantitative approaches to capture the complex and nuanced impact on the ground would allow for grounded evidence-based advocacy and demand for sustained funding for programmes that address VAW.

Any attempts to change existing norms and reverse the violence they perpetuate will need to be constantly and critically linked with the issues of girls’ lack of education, poverty, marginalisation, and exclusion in patriarchal societies. Similarly, while it is important to lobby governments and hold them accountable through UN processes; the shift from policy which addresses the rights of girls to individuals, families, and communities would have to run parallel. Thus creating a favourable environment within which they can make informed choices and begin to alter dominant power relations. Kabeer (1999)[6] rightly reminds us that while ensuring access to educational opportunities or participation in public spaces would unlikely lead to automatic empowerment, “they do create the vantage point of alternatives which allows a more transformatory consciousness to come into play.” In that sense, access to resources (knowledge, information, and education)[7], acquiring new attitudes around the value of girls and women, and the ability to question larger socio-economic power structures and relations that surround their lives are some of the ways to counter centuries of internalised belief systems. Nothing will do but concerted efforts. Long term sustained interventions, which are well-resourced, coordinated, and rooted in their experiences and voices.

Read Part 1 here.

Surbhi Mahajan is a freelance researcher, working on issues of gender and development, human rights, resourcing women’s rights for the last seven years. Follow her at @surbhi_mahajan.

[1] Kabeer, Naila, Resources, Agency, Achievements: Reflections on the measurement of Women’s Empowerment – Theory and Practice, ed. A. Sisask, Sida Studies No. 3, Swedish International Development Agency. 2001.

[2] Batliwala, S. “The meaning of women’s empowerment: New concepts from action.” in Population Policies Reconsidered: Health, Empowerment and Rights. G. Sen, A. Germain and L.C. Chen, eds. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1994.

[3] Batliwala, S. Engaging with Empowerment: An Intellectual and Experential Journey. Kali For Women. 2013.

[4] Sen, Gita. Women’s empowerment and human rights: The challenge to policy. Paper presented at the Population Summit of the World’s Scientific Academies. 1993.

[5] Both in India and in many countries across Africa, football is being used as a critical tool to engage with girls and communities at large to talk about issues of child rights, gender norms, reproductive health, education, etc. An example of this would be the European commission supported case study of a similar intervention in Tanzania. The study and its finding are available at: http://www.girlsnotbrides.org/resource-centre/using-football-end-child-marriage-tanzania/

[6] Kabeer, Naila, The Conditions and Consequences of Choice: Reflection on the Measurement of Women’s Empowerment, UNRISD Discussion Paper, No. 108. August 1999.

[7] CREA’s 2005 working paper Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in India emphasises the critical importance of information and know how about sexual health and how it can change the way we address sexual and reproductive needs of young people, especially in a socio-cultural context that prohibits public discourse on sexuality using arguments of culture and tradition, thereby denying young people access to basic information that would benefit them.

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