Breaking Norms: Saying No to Child Marriage in India

For many adolescent girls in India, being forced to marry before their 18th birthday is simply a reality. India has the highest number of child brides in the world, and it is estimated that 27% of girls are married before they turn 18.1 Although the practice is illegal throughout the country, the fact is that many young girls are not aware of their rights, nor are many equipped to say no to their parents or other relatives. A recent baseline study from one of Women Win’s programme partners in India showed that at the beginning of the programme less than half of the girls knew that a woman had the right to say no to sex and only 16% of the girls knew of a place where they could discuss sexual and reproductive health and rights issues.

Meet Laxmi*. At 14 years old, Laxmi lives with her family in the Tamil Nadu state of India where she attends secondary school. In 2017, Laxmi joined a programme at her school called Goal which is a sport and life-skills experience that teaches adolescent girls gender-specific life skills. The programme was delivered at Laxmi’s school by a community based organisation, thanks to a grant from the Naz Foundation (India) Trust, a non-governmental organisation which focusses on gender, health and rights. When Laxmi first joined, she lacked knowledge and confidence; in the baseline survey she filled out, she did not know that ‘girls and women have the right to say no to sex when they don’t want to’ and disagreed with the statement ‘I’m confident to ask others for support’.

In early 2018, Laxmi’s uncle started paying more attention to Laxmi when he visited their family home. Her uncle was in the police department, a respected position in the community. He eventually asked Laxmi’s mother for permission to marry Laxmi. As the pressure from her brother increased, Laxmi’s mother felt more and more unable to refuse him. She was in a dilemma; she felt unable to say ‘no’ to her brother, but she also didn’t want anything to happen to Laxmi. Child marriage often leads to early pregnancy, health issues such as an increased risk of HIV and an increased likelihood of suffering domestic violence.2 The stress of this situation affected Laxmi greatly; she lost interest in her studies and was always worried. She was 14 and she knew one thing – she did not want to marry her uncle.

During this time, one of the sessions of the Goal Programme focussed on violence against girls and women. Laxmi stayed behind after the session to talk more to her trainer and ask questions. She learned for the first time that day that she had the right to say ‘no’. With her new-found knowledge and confidence, Laxmi spoke to her parents that night. She explained to them that she did not want to marry now, and that child marriage, such as this marriage to her uncle, was forbidden by law in India and that there could be strict punishments for those who violated it. Laxmi convinced her parents to refuse his offer. The next time her uncle came to her house, he left in a fit of rage after hearing his request was denied.

Laxmi’s story is remarkable. Before starting the Goal Programme, Laxmi’s responses to the survey revealed that she strongly agreed with the belief that ‘men should make the final decision at home’ and disagreed that ‘women should decide how many children they get and the spacing in between them’. She did not know where to report violence, and simply did not respond to the question of whether she was able to stand up for herself. Her lack of knowledge about gender and gender-based violence shows the vulnerability of girls like Laxmi who are not educated about their rights when they encounter a situation like this one. A report by ICRW shows that one of the key ways to reduce child marriage is to empower adolescent girls with information, skills, and support networks.3 In Laxmi’s case, the information she learned from the Goal Programme, and the confidence she gained to speak out, likely prevented her from becoming another child bride in India.

Laxmi took action to change her own future. She was supported by her school and a local NGO, which was made possible through funding by other international organisations who are committed to helping girls like Laxmi exercise their rights. By establishing the Goal Programme in 2006, Standard Chartered has been a leader in empowering adolescent girls with the confidence, knowledge and skills they need to fulfil their economic and leadership potential. In the 12 years since it launched, Goal has reached over 381,000 adolescent girls and young women. For many, like Laxmi, it has meant a new and promising future. In 2017 Women Win partnered with the NoVo Foundation, the SOL Foundation and Comic Relief to further scale the financial support to community-based organisations, such as the Naz Foundation. Thanks to this support, Naz was able to expand its reach geographically, targeting areas such as Tamil Nadu, where girls are particularly vulnerable. Because of this, Laxmi was able to participate in the Goal Programme.

Laxmi’s story shows that real change and impact is possible. It is promising that, according to the latest report by UNICEF4, there has been a 25% reduction in child marriage in the last 10 years. But more work is needed; to support more girls like Laxmi, consider donating to Women Win or the Naz Foundation.

*Name changed for privacy. Photos represent the work of the Naz Foundation (India) Trust, not Laxmi herself.