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Human Trafficking Center

Embracing Social Conventions to End Forced Marriage

Members of an Ethiopian community talk about child marriage in a DFID-funded program which aims to produce behavioral changes that will end this practice.


Nov 2015



by Rex Hamaker, Director of Marketing and Communications

Forced marriage, like so many aspects of human trafficking, is often deeply entrenched in the communities where it is practiced.  In addition to high-profile cases like Boko Haram and ISIS, forced marriage is widespread in a number of countries as well as in immigrant communities in the United States and Europe.

In an effort to bridge the gap between academics and practitioners in combating forced marriage, Kate Castenson, Human Trafficking Center Senior Associate and Oliver Kaplan,  Associate Director, wrote a piece for the CNN Freedom Project about a promising way to collaborate: a social conventions approach.  Dealing with all stakeholders in changing harmful social conventions played a part in discouraging footbinding in China and Female Genital Mutilation in some African societies.  

Researchers are skilled in collecting data, analyzing it, and constructing theoretical frameworks to explain social phenomena.  Nongovernmental organizations are experienced in working with local populations.  Community stakeholders, experts in their own culture, can be wary of how changes in social conventions affect their way of living.  Collaboration between researchers and NGOs can go a long way to meaningfully engaging communities to modify their cultural conventions to benefit more of their own population.    

Read excerpts below and the entire piece here.

The U.S. State Department’s most recent Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report released in July draws attention to a variety of harmful norms related to modern slavery, noting that policy approaches that simply ban or criminalize these practices are not enough. But since some of these norms are actually social conventions, other traditional approaches to changing norms, such as awareness promotion and education about human rights, are also prone to fail because they do not address their social underpinnings.

Approaches should engage both sides of the marriage market or social interaction. In the case of child marriage, this would entail communicating with parents of both sons and daughters about the unjustness of child marriage. It also involves identifying an acceptable alternative practice.

Multi-tiered strategies engage girls as well as their families and communities, and also address structural issues such as poverty and insecurity, which facilitate the practice of child marriage.

Photo Credit: Jessica Lea/UK Department for International Development

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