According to a 2020 report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), globally around 20% of girls were married before the age of 18. South Asia alone accounts for 45% of these child marriages. UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children 2021 shows that around 51% of Bangladeshi girls were married before the age of 18 and 15% before the age of 15!

In Bangladesh, the government, civil society and international development partners have collectively prioritised ending child marriage, through an Action Plan to End Child Marriage formulated in 2018. The strategy has been to reduce child marriage before the age of 15 to zero by 2021 and to eradicate child marriage completely by 2041.

Despite remarkable progress, barriers remain. The passage of the updated Child Marriage Restraint Act in 2017 made birth certificates mandatory to obtain a marriage licence. However, in Bangladesh, official marriage licences are often not sought in rural areas. Further, the Child Marriage Restraint Act includes a loophole: courts can approve child marriages in ‘special cases,’ though no definition of such cases is given.

Factors contributing to child marriage are myriad, including poverty, lack of education, poor social security, low value for girls, son preference, concern for girls’ safety and superstitions. Hence, gender inequality emerges as a core causal factor.

Social and behaviour change communication and social norms

The practice of child marriage comprises a cluster of individual behaviours driven by people’s beliefs and expectations. Social norms make up the unwritten rules in a society. A range of factors are involved: individual beliefs, perceptions about what others do and opinions of people who matter to individuals. People comply with these expectations because of outcome expectancies or a belief that non-compliance with these norms will be punitive. The study of social norms, therefore, requires understanding perceptions of prevalence and the expectations of others.

A team of community development professionals meet with the local residents in river erosion-affected Bhola, southern Bangladesh, 19 February 2019 | Photo by Mahmud Hossain Opu.

One way to shift norms is through a social and behaviour change communication (SBCC) approach. UNICEF defines SBCC as:

‘… an evidence-based process that is an integral part of programmes and utilises a mix of communication tools, channels and approaches to facilitate dialogue, participation and engagement with children, families, communities, networks for positive social and behaviour change in both development and humanitarian contexts.’

One specific SBCC approach that has proven successful globally is entertainment-education (EE). The entertainment aspect of EE promotes audience engagement while the education component focuses on specific behaviours and social issues. The combination diffuses new ideas, increases knowledge, enhances decision-making self-efficacy, changes attitudes and encourages communication to change social norms and behaviours.

Icchedana – a transmedia intervention

In Bangladesh, a national transmedia entertainment-education (EE) initiative, Icchedana (meaning ‘on the wings of wishes’), was implemented in 2018–2019. It targeted three districts with high prevalence of child marriage.[1] It consisted of social mobilisation and community engagement components. The initiative was the result of collaboration among various partners – government, non-governmental organisations, university, experts and international development partners.

In Bangladesh, a national transmedia entertainment-education initiative, Icchedana (meaning ‘on the wings of wishes’), was implemented in 2018–2019.

The transmedia campaign was launched in two phases. The first phase involved several television advertisements and the dissemination of posters and billboard signs. In the second phase, a 26-episode television series named Icchedana was launched. This show portrayed the lives of four girls as they navigated the risks of being an adolescent girl in Bangladesh. Child marriage was a prominent theme throughout the series.

Recognising that child marriage is linked to other critical adolescence issues, the drama tackled stereotypical gender norms, menstrual hygiene, nutrition, school enrolment, retention in secondary schools, sexual abuse and harassment. The 26 episodes were aired for 26 consecutive weeks on 4 television channels in Bangladesh. The episodes were also uploaded on social media.[2]

The research outlook

This writeup addresses gaps in research on child marriage by answering two relevant questions. First, can shifts in social norms around harmful practices such as child marriage be measured over time? Second, what role does exposure to a transmedia EE initiative play in shifting child marriage norms? An endline household survey was conducted to seek answers to these questions.

When comparing social norms around child marriage over time:

  • All respondents reported perceiving a decline in the prevalence of child marriage and dowry exchange in their community.
  • Fathers reported strong self and community disapproval of child marriage.
  • Mothers and adolescent girls reported perceiving higher approval of child marriage among family, friends and community members.
  • Mothers were more likely to express approval of child marriage.

In analysing the role of a transmedia EE initiative in shifting child marriage-related norms:

  • Mothers with indirect exposure and adolescent girls with direct exposure to the initiative perceived a lower prevalence of child marriage and dowry exchange in the community.
  • Mothers directly exposed to the initiative were more likely to self-disapprove of child marriage.
  • Fathers directly exposed to the initiative reported perceiving strong disapproval of child marriage among family members.
  • Adolescent boys who had direct exposure were more likely to state there were no community punishments for people trying stop child marriage.

Fathers directly exposed to the Icchedana initiative reported perceiving strong disapproval of child marriage among family members.

Implications

Transmedia efforts like Icchedana capitalise on the positive aspects of both interpersonal and mass media communication. They challenge the viewpoint that interventions are just for information dissemination. Past research in Ethiopia and Latin America shows that child marriage norms are linked with empirical and/or normative expectations. However, a study conducted among caretakers in Malawi found social norms did not predict child marriage; rather, financial reasons, negative attitudes towards adolescent sexuality and limited access to contraception were better predictors of child marriage. In communication sciences, mass media strategies (like entertainment-education) have been useful to change attitudes. However, they have been less successful at addressing behaviours. Behavioural changes require discussion and dialogue with peers and community members.

Entertainment-education initiative is a vehicle to address child marriage, which otherwise is difficult to tackle culturally. The Icchedana initiative in Bangladesh serves as an example of a culture-centric approach that challenges static traditions. It incorporates formative research, fosters local production, monitors progress and contextualises child marriage within broader Bangladeshi society.

Regardless of exposure, all survey respondents reported perceiving declines in the prevalence of child marriage and dowry exchange over time. These results complement existing evidence on the role that exposure to SBCC plays in shifting social norms. SBCC interventions, short-duration ones, can address social norms.

Gender-transformative approaches are interventions aimed at making gender relations more equitable, largely through approaches that free both women and men from the impact of destructive gender and sexual norms. Indeed, research and initiatives on freeing men from gender have emphasised the importance of involving men and boys in domains typically considered to be of interest to women.

Child marriage is considered more salient to the women in a household compared with the male members.

Child marriage is considered more salient to the women in a household compared with the male members. However, results from authors’ research in Bangladesh show that EE (through showcasing positive male role models) provides men with the tools to advocate for gender equity.

Bangladeshi policy-makers should consider designing programmes that take into account individuals, families and communities to facilitate shifts in societal norms. Past interventions have shown that providing financial incentives, setting up youth information centres and enabling access to mass media delay marriage and keep girls in schools.

Need for a holistic approach

In Bangladesh, exposure to the Icchedana TV shows, portraying the daily lives and struggles of adolescent girls, has likely resulted in critical thinking on the part of exposed audiences. This is not surprising because traditional practices often persist in the absence of communication around an issue. Social behavioural change communication change (SBCC) interventions try to mirror reality. Therefore, they can serve as a catalyst to spark reflection and possibly bring change over time.

Shifting norms is a complex process, and Icchedana-like EE alone cannot create sustainable change. The change-making needs educational reform, policy support and improved health services. From a programmatic perspective, these results from Bangladesh show that SBCC interventions can help lead to shifts in social norms.

 

[1] The three districts, Tangail, Kushtia and Nilphamari, are spread across northern Bangladesh.

[2] On YouTube and on UNICEF Bangladesh’s web and Facebook pages.

 

Photo © Mahmud Hossain Opu

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Suruchi Sood is Director of Communication Science at Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs. She is an academic. She is a faculty member in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She was an Associate Professor at the School of Public Health, Drexel University. She received the Public Health Education and Health Promotion Section’s Everett M. Rogers Award. She pursued her doctoral studies at the University of New Mexico, USA.
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Astha Ramaiya is an Assistant Scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She is a scientist and a public health practitioner. She is a member of the Global Early Adolescent Study. She specialises in maternal health, child health, adolescent health and M&E. She received the Applied Health Sciences Young Alumni Award. She pursued her doctoral studies at Drexel University, USA.