I have often asked myself as well as some school-going girls “Is marriage a matter of choice?”
Covid-19 is just a new addition among a variety of other circulating, unchecked and unopposed anti-civilisation agents that have existed since time immemorial. These agents threaten and feed upon the centuries-old strong social fabric of human civilisation. All this started exactly a month ago when the whole world was celebrating International Women’s Day.
I had a brief conversation with a lovely teenage girl while interacting with the dropout girls at Pratham, an NGO. She told me how certain mundane customs and beliefs prevailing in her village compelled her and her family to stop her school education. This propelled and opened up an entirely new dimension and thought process in my mind regarding the extent of the role of social norms in the prevailing social evils in our society against the girl child, like child marriage.
This write-up is an outcome of this in-depth analysis and brainstorming on the role of social norms in child marriage during my current self-quarantine period due to the ongoing lockdown in India.
Child marriage is referred to as a “culture”, a “practice”, an “institution”, a “custom”, a “convention”, a “social norm” or a “moral” imperative.
The collective practices of child marriage can be sustained by two kinds of preferences — unconditional and conditional — and two kinds of beliefs — namely nonsocial and social. Measuring both these preferences and these beliefs allows us to determine whether a common practice is a social norm or not.
Table:-1 Classification of beliefs according to social and nonsocial
|Social Beliefs/ Expectations||Non- Social beliefs|
|Non-Normative Beliefs||Empirical Expectation||Factual Belief|
|Normative Beliefs||Normative Expectations||Personal Belief|
This collective practice of child marriage is, ultimately, a cluster of individual behaviours so that if we want to understand it, we have to understand why individuals behave in specific ways. A critical aspect of people’s response is that it is often influenced by what other people do or what they think should be done.
Table:-2 Different types of Belief with examples and how they impact child marriage.
|Definition||Examples in society|
|Factual Belief||Belief about reality other than about people’s behavior and thought.||An older girl will not find a good husband.|
|Personal Belief||Belief about what one should do||I should marry my daughter as soon as she reaches puberty|
|Empirical Expectations||Belief about what people do||All my neighbors marry their daughter as soon as they reach puberty.|
|Normative Expectations||Belief about what other people think one should do.||My neighbors think that one should marry one’s daughter as soon as she reaches puberty.|
A social norm is a rule of behavior that individuals prefer to conform to it and is based on the belief that most people in their relevant network conform to it (empirical expectations) and they ought to conform to it (normative expectations).
Not everybody’s preferences are conditional on their social expectations, nor are they equally sensitive to social expectations. Sensitivity to social expectations is often due to a lack of agency or autonomy. Autonomy is the ability and desire to make one’s own choices, to choose what one wants and to reflect on what one might wish to, rather than having others make your choices for you and decide for you what you want.
In short, autonomy is self-determination or personal freedom. Not all people are equally autonomous. Many child marriage campaigns aim to empower women to increase their level of independence so that they can abandon harmful social norms and perhaps, even take the lead in the collective process of change.
The importance of social expectations to the existence of norms indicates that behaviour and beliefs are interrelated. To understand certain parents’ decision to marry off their daughter early, you have to know what other parents are doing and thinking. Now, parents are not the only actors that sustain child marriage. In fact, child marriage is sustained by many behaviours performed by many actors, as illustrated in the diagram below.
Monitoring the progress of curbing child marriage, thus, requires monitoring the preferences, options and beliefs of all these different actors.
Child marriage is a serious human rights crisis and one of the most pressing development concerns in the world today. A committed inclusive approach will contribute significantly towards not only creating a world where girls are free to decide if, when and whom to marry, but also one where girls and women are safer, healthier, valued and empowered.