How to transform social norms among religious leaders

Written by Mashooque Birahmani, Sujag Sansar Organization (SSO), Pakistan

Please describe a situation when your organisation or project has faced challenges that you addressed by working on changing social norms.

Here in Pakistan we have laws covering the harmful practice of child marriage, but in our experience working on laws is not enough to make a change. We have lots of preventive measures in place, but to have impact we need to change attitudes of key stakeholders like the police, the media and religious leaders. We understood that it would be important to engage religious leaders because they officiate child marriages. We then started working on a strategy on how to engage these religious leaders.

How did you work on this problem and what changes did you make?

Our approach was not to confront the religious leaders, but to create a space for them to discuss child marriage amongst themselves. For the first time, we invited 15 religious leaders representing different schools of thought from Islam. We held four training sessions with them (covering human rights and medical aspects of child marriage and gender-based violence) and invited them to different community-based activities that we organise (e.g. theatre groups). We then facilitated a space for them to discuss what they think about child marriage. An important component of our strategy was engaging medical experts who explained to the religious leaders the harmful medical aspects of child marriage.

What did you achieve?

Twelve of the 15 religious leaders we engaged with became advocates for ending child marriage. They all refuse to conduct child marriage rituals, and this has resulted in the prevention of 30 child marriages so far. We have also seen changes in the response of community members. At first they said child marriage has been arranged for centuries and was not harmful. They said we were spreading vulgarity. But now, the community accepts and understands what we are doing because we have religious leaders as advocates.

What did you learn from this experience?

We learnt that it is important to focus more on stakeholders who have a different point of view to make a change. By working continuously with them, they will come to your side eventually. When working with religious leaders, we also learnt that it is important to involve top religious scholars who have strong influence. Finally, culture has positive sides (e.g. respecting women, music) and negative sides (e.g. acceptance of child marriage): use the positive aspects of culture to change perceptions.

What are your top tips for someone facing the same or similar issues?

  • Plan your strategy and analyse the problem thoroughly – conduct research to understand the issues. Do not start hastily
  • What works in cities may not work in rural areas – understand the community you are working in
  • Involve all stakeholders that are relevant to the issue
  • Do not engage in debate on religious grounds as this will antagonise religious leaders. Keep the debate on a legal (if relevant) and medical basis.

We received technical help from the Girls Not Brides website and webinars, especially their Theory of Change, tool kits and facts and figures on the child marriage situation at a global level, which helped us to develop a broader perspective in our work.

Some links of SSO media coverage, containing information that may be helpful for other organisations including:

Parkistan Child Marriages on BBC News World Asia

Sujag Sansar documentaries about child marriages on YouTube, which would be helpful for organisations working on child marriages.

Mashooque Birahmani, Sujag Sansar Organization (SSO), Pakistan

Mashooque Birahmani, CEO of Sujag Sansar Organization (SSO) in Pakistan, was born to the poorest family in the village of Dodo Birahmani in Sindh province in 1970. In his childhood, Mashooque took part in a children’s wing of a political party and worked as social activist. In 2005, he founded SSO and started working on girls’ education. He started work on child marriages with support of the Democratic Commission for Human Development, the Norwegian Human Rights Fund, UNFPA and AmplifyChange.