Child marriage is often more harmful to the bride than the groom. Girls married young can experience a lifetime of limitations, including giving up school, being disinherited and being kept at home. They are also more likely to suffer domestic abuse and endure complications from childbirth, which can be especially damaging if they start young.
No surprise, therefore, that most programs aimed at ending child marriage put their resources toward helping and empowering women and girls.
But according to some gender experts that is only half the problem.
“I don’t think it’s healthy to try to change a social norm if you’re only focusing on one part of the community,” says Margaret Greene, a research strategist who last year co-authored a paper on engaging men and boys in ending child marriage.
She is one of several people trying to move the conversation on to include fathers, brothers, sons, husbands and male religious and community leaders.
The study examined attitudes held by men and boys toward early marriage in communities all over the world – including Brazil, Bangladesh and Ethiopia. It also examined the effectiveness of existing programs that focus on men and boys.
Greene and her co-authors found boys and girls were conditioned from an early age to accept gender roles that reinforce inequality between a husband and wife: men take on the role of breadwinner and the dominant decision-maker, while women expect to do housework, take care of children and be subservient to their husbands.
The study found many settings where men are taught to believe they can act freely on their sexual desires and women are taught to accept this behavior. In Sri Lanka, for example, 67 percent of women and 58 percent of men strongly agreed with the statement: “Women cannot refuse to have sex with their husband.”
Greene maintains these social norms will never change unless men and boys are part of the conversation.
“In India a study by [the NGO] CARE found young men wanted older, more educated brides but it was their parents who preferred younger daughters-in-law,” Greene says. “There is an opening there we should be trying to work with.”
Among the handful of existing programs targeting men and boys, the results have been largely positive.
In West Bengal, the charity Landesa tries to empower women and girls through educating them about land rights. It started working with boys when it realized that could be one of the most effective ways to challenge traditional ideas about inheritance and dowries.
“One of the more complex barriers in terms of land rights is girls don’t control whatever assets are handed over as part of a dowry,” says Melany Grout, a lawyer and land tenure specialist working with Landesa. “We started to talk to boys about what this might mean for girls and they seemed to be able to identify the harmful dynamics.”
In Ethiopia, a program called Addis Birhan worked with more than 130,000 men in rural areas to encourage them to share household responsibilities. The project was a spin-off from a mentoring program for young brides and came about when their husbands requested mentor sessions, too.
“The men were very responsive,” says Annabel Erulkar, who ran the program on behalf of the Population Council. “The main message we tried to convey is men should help their wives with the household and children and support the medical needs of their wives.”
Researchers found women whose husbands took part in the sessions were eight times more likely to report they were getting help at home than the women whose husbands did not participate.
Erulkar says the program was particularly effective because of its house-to-house recruitment, which meant whole villages were involved in discussing behavioral change. She says the model could easily be applied elsewhere.
However, she warns, the bulk of funding should still be allocated to activities that focus on women and girls.
“People say men and boys make the decisions at a family and community level, therefore they should be targeted to bring about change. But by doing that you are only reinforcing that stereotype,” Erulkar says. “We still need to mobilize and empower girls.”