Fear of female sexuality: addressing an unspoken driver of early and child marriage

We all know that adolescence is, by definition, a time when children begin to mature into adults: physically, mentally and emotionally. In many communities, it’s also a time fraught with anxiety about the emerging sexuality of adolescent girls—a time when, driven by fear, some families exert tight control over where girls can go, who they can talk to, and how they dress. Because the roles of women and girls remain restricted in patriarchal societies across the world, families often marry off daughters at this age, believing their honor hinges on keeping girls virgins until marriage. In addition, families often pay lower dowries if they marry their daughters at younger ages.

Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting with a diverse group of 45 program implementers, government officials, philanthropic funders, researchers and policy advocates—all of them gathered to think deeply about this very issue. American Jewish World Service organized the event in close partnership with the International Women’s Health Coalition, CARE and GreeneWorks. With the adoption of eliminating early and child marriage as one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, there’s never been a better time for the global development field to join together to confront the widespread social norms and behaviors that aim to control female sexuality and perpetuate early and child marriage (ECM).

The meeting started with a discussion of sexuality as a driver of ECM. For example, in Nepal, any social contact between the sexes is seen as scandalous. This belief has a variety of harmful consequences. Girls have limited mobility in their communities, and adolescence becomes a silent period in which girls’ voices are not heard. Families and communities view marrying girls as children as the best way to prevent them from having romantic relationships outside of marriage. At a time when these girls are starting to experience changes in their bodies, feelings and attractions, they are simultaneously expected to never do anything that might challenge strict social norms about how they should behave. Meanwhile, they are not provided any information about sexual and reproductive health–yet, once married, they are expected to quickly become sexually active and produce children.

At our convening, we discussed concrete examples of work that incorporates sexuality as a platform to improve the lives of girls—from community-level programs in Pakistan, Nigeria and Guatemala, to research in Brazil and advocacy at the United Nations. For example: we talked about how risky it can be to openly discuss issues of sexuality in India, where the topic is highly taboo. Many people working for nonprofit organizations fear being shut down or worse if they provide forthright sexuality education in this context. So, instead of overtly talking with girls about sex, puberty, and their feelings and relationships, some local organizations have tried a less direct approach by developing girls’ sports teams or other interventions. Although many people frown upon teenage girls participating in sports and doing activities outside their homes, these projects encourage girls to subtly break social norms around what they can do with their bodies and lives. In doing so, the organizations hope to increase the girls’ confidence, self-awareness and abilities to advocate for their needs. They believe that, eventually, the girls will be able to set their own agendas for their lives and desires—and resist pressure to submit to the decisions other people try to make about their bodies, identities and relationships. Importantly, we heard that trust—which community-based organizations build over time—is key to reducing the potential for community backlash.

At the end of this two-day meeting, I left feeling energized, better informed and excited to work with my colleagues to bring conversations about sexuality to the forefront of ECM work. The meeting is just the start of an important conversation. Our field needs to continue deeply analyzing how patriarchy, sexual norms and other power dynamics affect girls and limit their choices in diverse contexts across the world. We need to shift from thinking about sexuality as something closed, personal and individual, to seeing it as a lens through which to examine fundamental questions about how social norms shape all of our families, communities and societies. It’s a critical next step, so that we can deepen the impact of our research studies, program strategies and advocacy agendas—and make sure all those efforts lead to real improvements for girls and the quality of their lives and relationships.

In the coming months, stay tuned for a paper that will build upon the insights harvested at this working meeting. And in the meantime, I encourage you to read “Child, Early and Forced Marriage and the Control of Sexuality and Reproduction,” a brief that AJWS co-authored with the same partners who were critical to making this convening happen.


Jacqueline HartJacqueline Hart is the Vice President for Strategic Learning, Research and Evaluation at AJWS. Drawing on years of experience in national and international program and policy development and implementation, Jacqueline is responsible for leading AJWS’s efforts to measure its impact on realizing human rights and ending poverty in the developing world.