Opinion: Could the entertainment industry help end child marriage?

Photo by: Maryam Mohsin / Girls Not Brides

We all love a good drama — be it on screen, in real life, or on the radio. In the U.K., EastEnders and The Archers radio series are incredibly popular for their cliffhanger storylines and portrayals of real life and personal dilemmas. The same goes in the U.S. for Serial and Girls. Dig deeper and it becomes apparent that these programs shed light, create empathy, and offer solutions to social problems hidden behind closed doors, such as domestic violence, substance abuse, illness and homelessness.

Entertainment as a means to encourage people to understand, reflect, or take action has been used as a tool in the international development sector for decades. It has helped reduce HIV/AIDS transmission and encourage basic sanitation, breastfeeding and healthy eating. More recently, it seems this could be an intelligent way to address complex, and often culturally and historically rooted issues, such as child marriage.

So how would “entertainment-education” work in practice if it were to be used as a tool to end child marriage? And can the magic of entertainment really hold the key to ending a practice that affects 15 million girls under the age of 18 every year?

Storytelling is a soft way to start hard conversations

Tackling social norms around child marriage is a sensitive process. In some communities, child marriage is a normality that a child’s parents would have experienced, and their parent’s parents, and so on. If that’s what they went through, why should it be any different for the next generation? Parents may think this despite remembering their own, often negative, personal experiences. It’s like this simply because society has accepted it as the norm and parents see no alternative — particularly when they are already struggling to feed, educate and keep their daughters safe.

When an “outsider,” such as an nongovernmental organization or a civil society organization, enters into a community with a message that disrupts the status quo, they are going to be met with resistance or defensiveness. Storytelling, on the other hand, brings audiences on a journey through characters who they can relate to. Suddenly, an audience can see things from other people’s perspectives — the young girl under pressure to marry because she is pregnant, a family struggling to make ends meet and seeing their daughter’s marriage as a short-term expense with long-term benefits, the teenager trapped in an abusive marriage.

Characters need to be similar to their target audiences — often with limited resources, but lots of resourcefulness

In Nepal, young girls see their friends elope, marry, and then vanish from society. They have no idea what it’s really like to get married, negotiate contraceptive use, have a child, simply because there is nobody there for these girls to speak to or learn from.

Characters can fill in these knowledge gaps. Entertainment-education provides a window into the lives of others. Characters also have the power to become inspirational role models to girls, siblings, parents, and communities alike. A great example of this is the Indian television series Main Kuch Bhi Kar Sakti Hoon (I, A Woman, Can Achieve Anything). The lead character, Dr. Sneha Mathur, leaves Mumbai to work in a small village where she tackles local challenges such as child marriage, patriarchy, teen pregnancy and domestic violence. Through her struggles and triumphs, she becomes a role model for women and girls in the village. The 52 episode series was shown on national TV and was watched by an estimated 58 million viewers.

Know what it is you are trying to achieve and how best to achieve it — and establish ways to measure it beforehand

Understanding how to tell a story visually, but also knowing how to spark behavior change, are two very different skillsets. Entertainment-education projects have to bring both together to have an impact. Unless storytellers can put audiences in the shoes of characters, they are not going to be able to show why people make certain decisions, what influences them, what limitations they face — such as social stigma, harmful traditions, misconceptions and myths that exist within local communities, or lack of access to contraception. Storytellers also need to be able to show what opportunities exist to push social boundaries.

On a practical level, find out how people like to access stories — is it through film, radio, TV, live performances? Adapt your story and characters so they fit that medium. Reinforcing messages through different means — such as discussion groups, translations, and social media — also increases the chance of having an impact on your target audiences.

Not cheap, but a price worth paying?

Entertainment-education is a resource intensive endeavor. It takes money, time, and people: actors, scriptwriters, audio technicians, researchers, marketing, producers and broadcasters. However, its reach can be huge and the cost per person reached with a particular message via the radio or TV could be nominal. This approach has all of the promise and evidence to make a difference because it has the potential to be popular, reach audiences at scale, hit a nerve, prompt debate and discussion, and excite people.

But entertainment-education is not a silver bullet. As with most interventions, to be truly effective it needs to be combined with programs aimed at working with communities, families and young girls. Girls need to be valued and have viable alternatives to marriage, such as education and vocational training. Policymakers, civil society organizations and NGOs are also critical in ensuring the laws, services and infrastructure are there to translate shifting attitudes into shifting behaviors. But the that impact entertainment-education could have in shifting attitudes and warming audiences to the idea of ending child marriage could make this endeavor priceless.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Maryam Mohsin

    Maryam Mohsin is the communications officer at Girls Not Brides. She works on media outreach to secure in-depth coverage of child marriage and the work being done to address it. Before joining Girls Not Brides, Maryam was the research uptake manager for the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium, and communications advisor on DFID’s High Level Humanitarian Cash Panel, both based at the Overseas Development Institute. Maryam has worked with a number of NGOs including Muslim Aid and Amnesty International.
  • Kate Whittington

    Kate Whittington is a program officer at Girls Not Brides. Kate conducts research and policy analysis on developments related to child marriage as well as working closely with members to support evidence-based advocacy. Prior to joining Girls Not Brides Kate worked for the Girl Hub, a strategic partnership between DfID and the Nike Foundation on their Girl Specialist and Monitoring and Learning teams, providing technical support on adolescent girl issues to their projects and country offices.