The importance of social research can hardly be overemphasised. Especially in the context of developing countries, better and more rigorous research is the need of the day. And, when an organisation as big as Plan International conducts a research study on as relevant a topic as child marriages, one expects a solid document with comprehensive coverage and at least some groundbreaking findings. The recently-released report by Plan, Getting the Evidence: Asia Child Marriage Initiative, gives some good recommendations but fails to impress on many other accounts.
First, let’s talk about the positive points of the reports. The research was carried out in Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Pakistan that collectively have over 600 million people — more than the entire population of the European Union of 28 countries. The three countries represent the largest concentration of Muslim population in the world with around 40 per cent of the total Muslims on the globe. Since the issue of child marriages is probably the most acute among Muslims, it was quite natural that the researchers selected these countries as their case studies. Moreover, Plan International has substantial project interventions in these countries to raise awareness about and prevent child marriages.
The research has used mixed-method approach with both qualitative and quantitative data on prevalence, practices and attitudes regarding child marriages. The report recommends that conducting awareness-raising about legal prohibition of dowry in Bangladesh and advocating for the adoption of a law banning dowry in Pakistan may help prevent child marriages. Secondly, the report suggests that the government’s ‘safety net’ programme should be targeted at girls (and the families of girls) in need; and school-enrolment targets should be set for girls at primary and secondary levels.
The report also recommends that a risk audit of violence in schools should be carried out and a strategy be developed and implemented for preventing and responding to violence. Even more important is the suggestion for a corrective education curriculum with a zero-tolerance policy for violence. Similarly, increasing access to sexual and reproductive health rights and services may make young girls more vocal and assertive about their marriage decisions and discourage early marriages. The report goes on to support existing advocacy and programming efforts for comprehensive sex and relationship education in the school curriculum.
Under the headline of ‘law and institutional frameworks’ the report recommends advocacy to raise the minimum age of marriage to 18 years for both boys and girls in all provinces of Pakistan. In this regard, capacity building of relevant stakeholders to increase knowledge of the statutory minimum age is suggested and a monitoring system of marriage registrars should be in place. Lastly, the report recommends that sensitization messages should promote the positive contribution that an educated and economically independent women can make to a marriage.
The report concludes with an added emphasis on how important it is for boys and girls to be sufficiently mature, financially responsible, and to have completed at least primary education before getting married. These recommendations are all well placed and pertinent and should serve as guidelines for policy makers and curriculum developers alike. Plan International should be commended for outlining these suggestions in such a cogent and comprehensive manner; this is indeed a list of suggestions that needs to be translated into vernacular of the three countries.
And now, the flip side of the report. The report is — in places — full of jargon and rigmarole of the usual development sector. Look at this sentence: “This evidence and analysis, which provides insight into the underlying drivers and attitudes that sustain child marriage practices, is crucial for developing effective and targeted programming for eradicating child marriage in the long run.” Translated into simple English it means; “This report explores the causes for child marriages, and will help in better project planning against them.”
The report claims to have “ensured the collection of comprehensive and representative data on prevalence, practices, and attitudes”; but the 40-page summary report does not specify from where this ‘comprehensive and representative data’ were collected — it talks about ‘research sites’, without actually naming the sites.
One has to access the complete report to find out that there were only two or three districts or sub-districts in each country from where the data were collected. Two in Bangladesh (Ghazipur and Dinajpur), two in Indonesia (Babakan and Cigudeg), and three in Pakistan (Mailsi, Muzaffargarh, and Rajanpur). Even in these districts only a smaller area was covered; for example, Sreepur in Ghazipur, and Kanshama in Dinajpur; or just Mailsi in Vehari.
The 40-page summary report does not give these details and leaves it to the imagination of the reader to grasp the extent of ‘comprehensive and representative data.’ One fails to understand how — in a country of 200 or 250 million people — data collected from 700 or 800 respondents, and that too from a small sub district or town such as Mailsi, be declared ‘representative and comprehensive’.
It seems that the learned researchers were in a hurry to write the ‘introduction’ of the summary report; the intro contains just one paragraph of eight lines, and that is simply the repetition from the one-page executive summary. One wonders why most researchers can’t understand the difference between a summary and an introduction, and in most cases repeat the same points in both.
According to the report, ‘2,742 surveys were completed’, and then gives the break up as 790 individuals in Bangladesh, 771 in Indonesia, and 1181 individuals in Pakistan; now one fails to understand the definition of a survey. Probably the researchers confuse ‘respondents’ with ‘surveys’ which are two entirely different terms in research and are not interchangeable. In a survey when you collect data from 100 individuals, you don’t say that ‘100 surveys’ were completed; unless you give a functional definition of a survey. If a survey means a questionnaire, that should also be specified.
Then coming to the ‘findings’, there are no surprises here. If you meet someone with basic social understanding and ask him or her about the causes for early marriages, you are likely to get the obvious answers such as ‘social norms’, ‘poverty’, ‘lack of education’, ‘male dominance’, and ‘limited choice for girls’; and that is precisely what this reports finds. It almost feels like inventing a wheel.
As mentioned earlier, perhaps the best part of the report is concerning recommendations. The report rightly points out that unless poverty and lack of opportunity is reduced, a reduction in early marriages may remain a pipedream. Enhancing girls’ enrollment and improving retention rates at primary and secondary schools are likely to result in marriages after 18 years of age. The report should have been clearer about ‘working with stakeholders’; it should have clearly mentioned who they are. Though the report claims to have a list of stakeholders in Annex A, even the complete report available on the net does not have any annexes at the end.