L-R: Yvone Kambiza, Alinafe Naison, Catherine Julio Funsani and Katrina Kampingo, who were underage brides in Malawi.

Editor’s Note: Kate Castenson obtained her M.A. in International Human Rights from the Josef Korbel School at the University of Denver, where she was also a research associate with the Human Trafficking Center. Oliver Kaplan is an assistant professor and associate director of the Human Trafficking Center at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. The opinions expressed in this commentary are theirs.

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Forced marriage is still a widespread cultural practice

It's vital we recognize its social underpinnings, write Oliver Kaplan and Kate Castenson

Solutions must engage with parents of both sons and daughters, and with community leaders

CNN  — 

With the rise of violent extremist groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and ISIS in the Middle East, horrific descriptions of young girls being kidnapped and forced to marry militants have made headlines. But the problem of forced marriage is far more widespread.

As a persistent form of modern day slavery, forced marriage is an embedded cultural practice that is found in a variety of countries. Forced marriage even occurs among immigrant groups in the United States and Europe. Fortunately, new approaches offer hope for putting an end this practice.

Kate Castenson

According to the International Center for Research on Women, one third of girls in the developing world marry before age 18, and one in nine are married before the age of 15. Although data is sparse, countries with the highest rates of child marriage include Niger (76%), Central African Republic (68%), Chad (68%), Bangladesh (65%), Mali (55%), Burkina Faso (52%), South Sudan (52%), Guinea (52%), Malawi (50%), Mozambique (48%), India (47%), and Somalia (45%).

Oliver Kaplan

As social norms, forced marriage of adults and child marriage have been intractable problems because they are also frequently part of societal incentive structures. Combatting them therefore calls for more comprehensive “social conventions” approaches.

The U.S. State Department’s most recent Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report released in July draws attention to a variety of harmful norms related to modern slavery, noting that policy approaches that simply ban or criminalize these practices are not enough. But since some of these norms are actually social conventions, other traditional approaches to changing norms, such as awareness promotion and education about human rights, are also prone to fail because they do not address their social underpinnings.

‘Forced marriage is a social convention’

As political scientist Gerry Mackie notes, social conventions are equilibria among different social actors, where neither party to the interaction has an incentive to shift their behavior as long as the other party’s strategy remains the same. This makes them difficult to disrupt by working only one side of the problem, since doing so can upset the foundations of a society.

Mackie finds this was the case for the conventions of footbinding in China and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) practiced in parts of Africa and the Middle East. For instance, in societies where FGM is a social convention, policies that only address the behavior of women and girls have unintended negative consequences, since females who do not undergo FGM are no longer seen as desirable to prospective marriage partners.

With child marriage it is similarly a misconception to think that programming focused only on women and girls can eliminate the practice. One-sided approaches such as programs that address child marriage through improvements in female education or through “demand reduction campaigns” to dissuade male suitors are problematic because they do not address the underlying social architecture of child marriage.

‘Engage both sides of the marriage market’

Existing research on shifting social conventions provides suggestions for ways forward. First, approaches should engage both sides of the marriage market or social interaction. In the case of child marriage, this would entail communicating with parents of both sons and daughters about the unjustness of child marriage. It also involves identifying an acceptable alternative practice. Discussion of examples of foot-binding, FGM, and other kinds of harmful conventions could be instructive and provide a model for recognizing the possibility of change.

Second, community and traditional leaders who are the enforcers of the convention need to be engaged. If village or community leaders who have sanctioned or even insisted upon child marriages can be approached with respect, they may come to see that a coordinated shift in the practice will not harm the community or upset existing authority relationships. They may help facilitate the change by making a public commitment to new practices.

Third, a shift must be coordinated among all actors to change practices so that both would-be brides and would-be grooms agree to new marriage practices simultaneously.

Fortunately, some non-profits, such as Tostan and Girls Not Brides, have already adopted a theory of change that reflects a conventions approach. Their multi-tiered strategies engage girls as well as their families and communities, and also address structural issues such as poverty and insecurity, which facilitate the practice of child marriage.

International organizations and individual countries are adopting similar approaches to combating child marriage, with UNICEF noting that programs should further consider the economic, structural, and social factors that contribute to this practice. UNICEF’s child marriage program in Uganda includes NGO and community initiatives as well as support from religious and cultural leaders.

The good news is that when such conventions end, they are expected to end quickly. The equilibrium shifts occur rapidly and harmful practices are discarded for less individually harmful social arrangements.

In the case of child marriage, the new arrangement also benefits society. Girls who delay marriage can pursue an education to improve their employment prospects and they have a lower risk of the medical problems associated with early motherhood.

The new wave of conventions-based campaigns against forced marriage provides an opportunity to evaluate the successes of this approach. Advocates should then gather improved data on the global patterns of forced marriage to identify where campaigns can have the greatest impact.