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Social Norm and Child Marriages

Posted: April 24, 2020

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This collective practice of child marriage is, ultimately, a cluster of individual behaviours, so if we want to understand it, we have to understand why individuals behave in certain ways.

I have always questioned myself, as well as some of the girls who are returning to school – “Is marriage is a matter of choice?”

COVID-19, is just a new addition, to a variety of other existing, unchecked and unopposed, anti-civilisation agents since time immemorial, that threatens and feeds upon the centuries-old strong social fabric of humans. All this started exactly a month back when the whole world was celebrating International Women’s Day. I had a brief conversation with a lovely teenage girl while interacting with the dropout girls at Pratham NGO. She told me how certain redundant customs and beliefs prevailing in her village compelled her and her family to stop her school education. This propelled and opened an entirely new dimension and thought process in my mind, regarding the extent of the role of social norms in the prevailing incidences of existing social evils in our society against young girls, like Child Marriage. This write-up is an outcome of this deep analysis and introspection, on the topic of “Role of social norms in Child Marriage”, during my self-quarantine period, due to the ongoing lockdown period in India.

Child marriage is considered  as a “culture”, a “practice”, an “institution”, a “custom”, a “convention”, a “social norm”, or a “moral” imperative in many parts of the country.

The collective practices of child marriage can be sustained by two kinds of preferences, namely unconditional and conditional, and two kinds of beliefs, namely nonsocial and social. Measuring both these preferences and both these beliefs, allows us to determine whether a collective practice is a social norm or not.

Social Beliefs/ Expectations Non- Social beliefs
Non-Normative Beliefs Empirical  Expectation Factual Belief
Normative Beliefs Normative Expectations Personal Belief
Table:-1 Classification of beliefs according to social and non-social.

This collective practice of child marriage is, ultimately, a cluster of individual behaviours, so that, if we want to understand it, we have to understand why individuals behave in certain ways. One important aspect of people’s behaviour is that it is often influenced by what other people do and by what other people think should be done.

Definition Examples in society
Factual Belief Belief about reality other than about people’s behaviour and thought. An older girl will not find a good husband.
Personal Belief Belief about what one should do I should marry my daughter  as soon as she reaches puberty
Empirical Expectations Belief about what people do All my neighbours marry their daughter as soon as they reach puberty.
Normative Expectations Belief about what other people think one should do. My neighbours think that one should marry one’s daughter as soon as she reaches puberty.
Table:-2 Different types of Belief with examples and how they impact child marriage.


A social norm is a rule of behaviour, such that individuals prefer to conform to it, on condition they believe that, most people in their relevant network conform to it (empirical expectations), and they ought to conform to it(normative expectations). 

Not everybody’s preferences are conditional on their social expectations, nor they are equally sensitive to social expectations. Sensitivity to social expectations is often due to a lack of agency or autonomy. Autonomy is the ability and desire to make one’s own choices, to choose what one really wants, and to reflect on what one might want, rather than having others make choices for you and decide for you what you want. In short, autonomy is self-determination or personal freedom. Not all people are equally autonomous. Hence, many child marriage prevention programs aim at empowering women at increasing their level of autonomy so that they can abandon harmful social norms and perhaps even take the lead in the collective process of change.

The importance of social expectations to the existence of norms indicates that behaviours, as well as beliefs, are interrelated. To understand certain parents’ decision to marry off their daughter early, you have to know what other parents are doing and thinking. Now, parents are not the only actors that sustain child marriages. In fact, child marriages is sustained by many behaviours performed by many actors, as is illustrated in the diagram below. Monitoring progress in ending child marriage thus requires monitoring the preferences, options, and beliefs of all these different actors.

Child marriage is a serious human rights crisis and one of the most pressing development concerns in the world today. A committed inclusive approach will contribute significantly to not only creating a world where girls are free to decide if, when, and whom to marry, but also one where girls and women are safer, healthier, valued and empowered.

Image Credits: Unsplash

Women and Child rights activist, Blogger, Author# UNICEF# #International youth journal#

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