In 11th grade, some students in India read a story that’s not your typical textbook fare.
It’s about a girl whose marriage was arranged when she was just one year old.
When she turned 18, her parents ordered her to leave home and join her husband.
Only she went to court to protest.
That’s the true story of Laxmi Sagara of Rajasthan. Working with a social psychologist and with Kriti Bharti, founder of the women and children’s rights nonprofit Saarthi Trust, she won the case in 2012 and subsequently married the man of her choice.
And girls in India can now read all about it in a textbook that was published in 2014.
But child marriage is not always mentioned in the textbooks of the countries where it remains a fact of life, according to the Gender Review by UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report, released last month.
Indeed, when the issue is absent from textbooks, it’s also absent from classroom discussion, says Nihan Koseleci, researcher from the GEM Report.
“Sometimes it’s not what you teach but what you don’t teach,” she says. “Not to include [it] is not neutral. If it’s not in there, you miss the opportunity to raise awareness and to discuss the causes, context and consequences” of child marriage.
And unfortunately, in many countries where child marriage is prevalent, like Kenya and Malawi, textbooks either gloss over or omit the topic entirely.
Koseleci points, for instance, to a Kenyan school syllabus for life skills — usually a elementary-level class focusing on subjects like family and community life, which often touches on gender-related and social issues. Child marriage is mentioned there, but only in a matter-of-fact manner as something that may occur.
Absent is any discussion of circumstances or possible underlying reasons, she says. “If you look at conflict-affected areas, sometimes families are obliged to push their daughters to marry early because they cannot afford to feed another mouth.”
In a similar vein, a life skills syllabus in Lesotho mentions teen pregnancy as a fact of life but without identifying possible causes — such as child marriage. And if those subjects are included, chances are, she says, “it is just there by itself as an event or a reality that might occur in a girl’s life.”
But imagine that “perhaps there is a student in the classroom whose sibling has experienced child marriage,” says Koseleci. The absence of any explanation in the textbook or in the school curriculum implies that it is a subject that should not be discussed or questioned.
That is why putting the issues in context, and in an educational setting, is essential, says Lakshmi Sundaram, executive director of Girls Not Brides, a global partnership of more than 600 organizations from over 80 countries committed to ending child marriage.
“Teaching boys and girls about the realities of child marriage can help them reflect critically on what they want for their own futures,” she stated in an email. “It also provides an opportunity to raise awareness about the minimum legal age of marriage, the rights children are entitled to, and the negative health and other implications of early marriage and childbirth.”
As a result, students might even “become advocates for their own rights, helping to change attitudes and norms within their communities,” she says.
Still, whether or not textbooks include child marriage, teachers need training in how to address the issue, says Juliet Kimotho of the Forum for African Women Educationlists (FAWE), a nonprofit organization that promotes education for girls in 33 countries in Africa.
“The way you approach general education is not limited to the textbooks,” she says. It’s the teachers who can engage and provide links between the students, their parents and the community. When such connections are in place, teachers can then reach out to girls who have been forced to leave school for early marriage and advocate for them with their families to return to school, she explains.
Outside of school, comic books are being used to raise awareness. A prime example is a recent issue in a Pakistani series that features a group of teenagers who team up to battle social ills, co-written by documentary filmmaker and human rights activist Samar Minallah Khan. In “Team Muhafiz and the Child Raiders” the teens fight against the injustice of the outlawed practice known as “vani,” in which a child bride is married off as settlement for a crime committed by one of her male relatives. The story shows the team go into action to rescue Safiya, a 13-year-old schoolgirl who loves to play soccer, but whose parents have forced her into an arranged marriage so an uncle will not have to go to jail.
Even beyond these textbook and comic book lessons, however, education is important in and of itself in countering child marriage, contends Sundaram of Girls Not Brides. “Girls who stay in school are less likely to marry at an early age and have children before they are mentally and physically ready to do so. The fact remains that approximately 60 percent of child brides in the developing world have not had any formal education,” she says.
Koseleci from UNESCO concurs: “You need to have education, appropriate legislation and implementation and enforcement, as well as community-based campaigns. Like a puzzle, all the parts need to be put together. And that’s the message of this report: everyone has to work together.”