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Let’s Get Uncomfortable: How The Control Of Girls’ Sexuality Is Everybody’s Business In The World Of Child Marriage

A picture of a group of young girls in school uniform

To be a man is to be in control. In control of your career, your emotions, your household, and certainly your sex life. Can you imagine a Hollywood blockbuster featuring a male actor asking their romantic interest for directions on how to please them? Or better yet, do you hear them ask, “Do you have ideas about how best to pleasure me?”.

Not only should men be in control, but they should be virile and capable of having children – both of which are strongly connected to men’s self-worth in communities in the United States, South Asia and around the world.

This immense pressure to perform masculinity throughout each day and night not only impacts men’s wellbeing, but it also inevitably impacts the way they interact with the world around them. These interactions – this performance of control over oneself and others – reinforce the social norms and norms of power that drive gender inequality.[1] Control lies at the root of gender inequality and its symptoms; this is particularly true for child, early and forced marriage (CEFM), which thrives off control over girls’ and women’s sexuality.  Without addressing this realm of patriarchal control, the fight to end child marriage will continue to waste funds, communities’ resources, and girls’ time that could be spent being the powerful force this world needs them to be.

The deep and fragmented impact of control over girls’ sexuality

CEFM lies at a particularly unique intersection of patriarchal discrimination and control for approximately 700 million women: on the surface, girls lose their ability to make one of the most intimate decisions of their life – who and when to marry.[2] As the impacts of this practice unravel, we see it is done at the expense of girls’ schooling, chances for paid employment, “the refusal to permit them control over their sexuality and reproduction, and a tolerance of their vulnerability to gender-based violence”.[3]

While understanding the impacts of CEFM is important for response, we know that prevention is both vital and achievable. CARE’s Tipping Point Initiative undertook deep, participatory analysis to understand the root causes of child marriage in Bangladesh and Nepal. The findings revealed several trends we see across the world:

This social phenomenon is not simply a man’s issue. Adolescent boys are socialised to regard their wives as their responsibility and as their property, directly enhancing male sexual entitlement and legitimising ways of exerting control to fulfil societal expectations of masculinity. These expectations play out in daily decision-making and can create immense pressure on men and boys to perform – as a breadwinner, as someone able to express only acceptable forms of sexuality–and hence, they struggle in silence with mental health issues.[4]

Families feel responsible to control girls’ sexuality to ensure they are virgins at the time of marriage.[5]If girls are married younger, they are more likely to be virgins – fulfilling expectations of purity and fertility. Furthermore, limiting or completely denying girls the agency to interact with boys – by limiting their ability to leave the house – is seen as essential to maintaining their virginity and thus their family’s honour.

The control of girls’ sexuality – and its proper regulation – is central to the timing of marriage. In both Nepal and Bangladesh, parents fear their adolescent daughters and sons will get involved in love affairs that will stigmatise the girl and bring dishonour to the girl’s family. Studies conducted elsewhere, from Nigeria to the United States, have found that moulding and controlling girls’ sexuality and fertility incentivises child marriage, legitimising the sexual activity of young girls and upholding expectations of motherhood.[6]

Girls’ sexuality is the concern of others. While parents, brothers, uncles and community leaders are concerned with girls’ sexual development, “girls themselves are given no information about their own bodies, puberty, sex, and reproduction in order to prepare and protect themselves.”[7] As in other places, obedience is many times a marker of women’s marriage potential,[8] so demonstrating agency over your body is viewed as deserving of stigma.

The give and take of shifting power

To act against child marriage in Nepal and Bangladesh, the Tipping Point Initiative centralises the need to address control of girls’ and women’s sexuality and other underlying norms of the practice while promoting adolescent girls’ rights through community level programming, evidence generation and building multi-level advocacy. This multi-pronged approach to shift norms and facilitate empowerment rests on a few key tenets:

Start with yourself: As allies working to end child marriage, we also must give of ourselves – not as project staff who step out of a Land Rover to give answers but as companions on a journey of transformation. Tipping Point uses CARE’s Social Analysis & Action model to help staff reflect on our own biases, beliefs and attitudes towards tough issues like adolescent sexuality. This not only makes our work more thoughtful but also more credible with the communities we serve.

Reflect with communities: Taboo subjects like adolescent sexuality are difficult to discuss.However, shame-free dialogue and community-led action are possible using gender transformative approaches.Tipping Point has found that beginning with critical reflection on masculinities and communities’ own norms is central –this helps build a collective understanding of the underlying causes of issues like child marriage without judgement. As girls and communities take the lead, communities’ values are held up as opposed to attacked, shifting their own norms to support girls’ rights instead of rejecting masculinities as inherently destructive.

Engage men and boys as valued co-conspirators, not barriers to be removed: It is important to separate hegemonic masculinity and men – when Tipping Point teams talk to religious leaders in Bangladesh, they do not start the conversation by telling them how they are perpetuating a harmful traditional practice that they thought was being protective of the girls and women in their communities. Rather, we reflect with these community leaders on how masculinities produce pressure, affect their personal lives as men, impact their role in the community, and thus impact their communities’ health and wellbeing.

Centre yourself, sexuality, and girls’ rights

Addressing the patriarchal control of girls’ and women’s sexuality is not simply wresting the power away from those who seek to do us harm. We must challenge ourselves and those around us – whether it is simply saying the word “sex” instead of a euphemism, resisting state-sanctioned mechanisms to regulate sexuality in all its forms, or asking why honour and purity are so forcefully esteemed, it is important that we acknowledge the presence of power, coercion, and control in women and girls’ lives.

She would like to thank her collaborators on this piece, including Yuleidy Merida and Esther Spindler in particular, and the CARE Bangladesh and CARE Nepal teams for driving the learning that made this piece possible.


[1] Social norms are the unwritten rules of behavior that are considered acceptable in a group or society.

[2] Greene, Margaret E., Stephanie M. Perlson, Jacqueline Hart, and Margo Mullinax. 2018. The Centrality of Sexuality for Understanding Child, Early and Forced Marriage. Washington, DC and New York: Greene Works and American Jewish World Service.

[3] CARE. The Cultural Context of Child Marriage in Nepal and Bangladesh: Findings from CARE’s Tipping Point Project Community Participatory Analysis. Page 2.

[4] Spindler, E., Perlman, D., Chaibou, S., Silverman, J., Carter, N., Boyce, S., Levtov, R., Vlahovicova, K., & Lauro, G. (2019). Child marriage, fertility, and family planning in Niger: Results from a study inspired by the International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES). Washington, DC: Promundo-US.

[5] CPA and Plan Nepal, Save the Children, World Vision International Nepal. 2012. Child Marriage in Nepal: Research Report. Kathmandu.

[6] Greene, Margaret E., Stephanie M. Perlson, Jacqueline Hart, and Margo Mullinax. 2018. The Centrality of Sexuality for Understanding Child, Early and Forced Marriage. Washington, DC and New York: GreeneWorks and American Jewish World Service.

[7]CPA and Plan Nepal, Save the Children, World Vision International Nepal. 2012. Child Marriage in Nepal: Research Report. Kathmandu.


Cover Image: Pixabay

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