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Imagining a brave new world for girls

Written by Caroline Harper

Normal is always changing.

In each and every country seemingly-fixed things like voting rights, land ownership, and the minimum age  for marriage have evolved over time. 

For many girls around the world, as new ODI research has illustrated, the first signs of puberty are a trigger for the child to be offered for  marriage.  

Castigating parents and communities for practices which they see as normal will not lead to change. 

ODI’s review of how complex social attitudes can be shifted focused on using conversations, information and media to imagine a world outside your own.  

It seems imagining a new normal can make for change. 

Society will also need to take many other actions but conversations with girls, parents and communities can make a significant difference.  

In one study as many as 75% of adult respondents, reported their views and actions on early marriage had changed as a result of these interventions.  

In rural Ethiopia the Berhane Hewan project lasted for two years and used group work and house visits from mentors to help the community imagine a different reality for girls These methods were more successful than offering support for schooling, or free sheep for families who didn’t encourage early marriage. 

Imagining a new normal – stepping out of your own world view – is challenging for everyone. Change in this community in Ethiopia indicates an enormous potential to adapt and brings great hope for similar results elsewhere.

But before we all embark on conversational development, it’s also very clear that a very wide range of complementary actions are necessary.  

The same ODI study of communication interventions found that public declarations to effect change in a programme in Senegal had very little effect on early marriage, whilst having a positive effect on ending female genital mutilation/cutting.  

Perversely however, the ending of FGM/C in this community increased pressures for girls to marry early to avoid out of wedlock pregnancies, which are now more stigmatised than not being cut – according to research done in 2008 by renowned expert Dr Nafissatou Diop.  

This reflects the continued oppression of girls – transferring the power and control previously exercised through FGM/C  to early marriage.

This is precisely why a much wider framework of women and girl’s empowerment is necessary.

If a girl is old enough to marry than she should be old enough to own property, take a job, manage assets, and hold custody over her children.  

This wider framework of empowerment underpins all attempts to end early marriage.  

It is possible - many countries are moving towards enacting these broader changes. Tracking progress in the empowerment of women and girls should be included in the new global development goals due to be drawn up next year by the United Nations.

That would allow governments to be held to account.  Methods exist to measure social changes soon it will be realistic to talk about a brave new normal for girls.