Moving beyond gender norms

Feb 09, 2021
When the cloud of COVID-19 descended on the world, my family hunkered down, stayed close and committed to weathering out to the storm. Schools shuttered, sports suspended, summer camps cancelled. Eleven months later the storm has yet to pass and while my kids could really do with some unstructured, screenless play time with friends, I know that this time of social distancing will end and they will once again reunite with their classmates, teammates and friends. 

But this is not the case for all children. For millions of girls around the world COVID-19 has brought an end to childhood, and an early and forced marriage. A growing body of evidence shows the COVID-19 pandemic will result in an estimated 13 million more girls forced into early marriages over the next decade. In order to meet our global commitment to end child early and forced marriage (CEFM) by 2030, we need to work faster.

Why are girls forced to marry early?

There are four main reasons why girls are forced to marry early: 
  • Gender inequality and patriarchal values
  • Tradition
  • Poverty 
  • Instability, conflict and humanitarian crisis
Often these reasons overlap and, in this time of COVID-19, they intersect with the challenges of school closures, rises in teenage pregnancy, marketplace closures and job losses

a young Bangladeshi girl stares out the window during lockdown.
12-year-old "Kabita" is in grade six and wants to be a doctor one day. Her father was a rickshaw puller before the pandemic, but when the lockdowns came, he lost his job. The family has been struggling to make ends meet ever since. With schools closed, and the loss of income, tensions run high at home. Photo: Apolo Das 

Bangladesh, for example, ranks among the top ten countries in the world with the highest rates of child marriage. 51% of young women in Bangladesh were married before the age of 18. Girls who marry early are more likely to leave school, have early and high-risk pregnancies, be malnourished, experience intimate partner violence and be socially isolated. Although the practice of child marriage is less common in Bangladesh today than in previous generations, meeting the Sustainable Development Goal target to end child marriage by 2030 will require that progress be 17 times faster than the current pace. 

Challenging social norms

While attitudes are slowly starting to shift toward greater gender equality, the voices and agency of adolescent girls continue to be restricted. Long-standing social norms discourage girls from voicing their opinions or preferences when it comes to household decision making or aspirations beyond the domestic sphere.  

During adolescence, restrictions on personal choice and mobility tighten as parents try to protect their daughter’s virginity, while protecting family honour.  And a strong son bias in Bangladesh negatively impacts the resources invested in girls’ nutrition and education. This can mean that at mealtimes, boys are served first and the most, and girls are served last and with what remains. It can also mean that boys are prioritized for school and girls are kept home to do household chores. These biases contribute to parents’ perception of their daughters as an economic burden and their marriageability as an ‘asset’ to be traded. 

The rise of Girl Power Groups

In 2017, we established Adolescent Girl Power Groups (AGPG) in Thakurgaon District, Bangladesh. Funded by Global Affairs Canada through ENRICH the 1000 Day Journey, these girl power groups put adolescent girls at the centre of our efforts to tackle gender injustice and advance gender equality in participating communities. 

three Bangladeshi girls sit on the ground. they are looking at a booklet.Adolescent Girl Power Group leader Rubina Akter leads a session on Sexual Reproductive Health issues like menstrual hygiene management, personal cleanliness, sex education and personal hygiene management. Photo: Md. Golam Ehsanul Habib 

The AGPG model provides girls with both life and livelihood skills to address the risks and vulnerabilities they face including early marriage, pregnancy and school dropouts, and to harness their potential as community mobilizers and change agents.  

So far, 16 AGPGs have been active in the region for the past three years, providing 320 girls with a dedicated space to learn and build their communication, self-confidence and critical thinking skills.

When the pandemic began, we wanted to get a sense of how the AGPGs were meeting the girls’ needs – girls who, when crisis hits, are at increased risk of being married off. 

Saving lives and building confidence

We surveyed the girl power group participants, their parents and group leaders about how the groups work and what they have provided the girls over the last three years. 

What we found was incredible. The AGPG approach is saving the lives of young girls by:
  • Building their confidence, social capital and knowledge about their sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). 
  • Increasing the girls’ social networks and mobility. 
  • Elevating their status and decision-making power within their families and communities. 
Girls and parents both spoke about the important groundwork that the girl power groups have laid over the past three years. Daughters have become more knowledgeable and comfortable advocating for themselves and parents have become more responsive to their daughters’ opinions and suggestions. And for the most part, both groups now oppose harmful practices such as CEFM, dowry and gender-based violence (GBV). 

These significant shifts in attitude that have come from a daughter’s participation in the AGPGs laid the foundation for more equitable and harmonious interactions and decision-making inside households before the pandemic hit. As a result, it may have prevented families from resorting to discriminatory coping strategies that threaten the health and rights of girls amid a global pandemic.

The girls we surveyed had noticeably improved self-confidence and said they felt more optimistic about being a girl and about their future. And beyond the increased sense of power and agency at the individual level, the girls found the AGPGs to be a source of collective agency. Coming together as a group has emboldened the girls to challenge discriminatory gender norms and promote gender responsive health, nutrition and hygiene practices in their families and communities. 

a group of Indian girls stand with fists out looking confident and happy.This girl power group has handled cases of child marriage, child labour, trafficking, alcoholism, domestic violence, and many other smaller cases. Photo: Neola D'Souza

As one participant said: “We are now much more confident than before. We can talk face to face with others freely and with confidence. Before joining the group, we were not able to do that. We feel ourselves valued and empowered when we talk with people and peers about these issues.”

Another added, “We now have a strength, we can protest against wrong decisions. We can now express ourselves well and discuss our future choices with our parents and community.”

Small steps become big leaps

Harmful gender norms continue unchallenged in 282 additional villages in the area. Early marriage is common practice in these villages and continues to threaten the health and rights of adolescent girls. All AGPG girls, parents and project staff whom we spoke to recommend we expand the AGPG model to as many villages as possible. 

a young Bangladeshi girls walks down a green path with her grandfather.
11-year-old Jasmine with her grandfather. Jasmine has a disability, and her grandfather has high hopes that she will one day become a doctor. "As she is special, she needs a stable job. Being a doctor she will serve the people especially like her." Photo: Md. Shabir Hussain 

The girls in this study told us that having their parents’ support is critical to their success. While there is broad-based support, some parents still harbour reservations related to girls’ rights, education, SRHR and delayed marriage. As such, parents’ knowledge and belief in the value of the groups, their engagement, support and capacity must be encouraged and incentivized for the ongoing sustainability and success of the strategy. 

And this is what we intend to do. The AGPGs have been so enormously successful that World Vision Canada intends to replicate them as a best practice and approach in other areas where we work across the globe. Small steps become big leaps, and this is one of the ways that we will meet the Sustainable Development Goal of ending child marriage by 2030. With your help, we can do this faster. 

Read the report and learn more about how you can help women and girls in crisis.

Merydth Holte-McKenzie is World Vision Canada's senior gender equality advisor. With more than 25 years of experience, she is a strong advocate for health and gender equality. Merydth holds a Masters of Community Health from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, and a BSS in Political Science from the University of Calgary.

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