Mother-in-Laws Matter


Rani is 17 years old, beautiful, confident, and committed to change.  In her village in Bangladesh, most girls get married between 12 and 14, and don’t go to school past the fifth grade.  Not Rani. She is going to the high school...but her sister-in-law has a different story.

Rani goes to school, even though for six months a year she has to ride a boat 3 kilometers to get to school, since the whole area is flooded.  She plans to go to college.  And in her spare time, she goes to the Dholkutub Girls’ Center—which CARE runs to give girls a space to learn, grow, and build networks—and helps other girls with their schoolwork.  She also works to run groups for girls who have dropped out of school so they can learn to read and write.


Shruti is one of the girls Rani tutors.  She proudly took my pen and wrote her name in my notebook when I asked.  At the age of 16, married, and with a one year old baby, she comes to the center so she can learn to write her own name, and for conversations with girls and women on all kinds of issues.  Shruti is also Rani’s sister in law.  Rani’s parents know that child marriage, early pregnancy, and stopping her education will limit her life forever, and have decided not to get her married yet.  But they still married their son to a 14 year old, and expect her to stay at home, have grandchildren, and keep house.


We met Rani and Shruti on a recent trip to Nepal and Bangladesh, doing startup activities for a child marriage prevention project called Tipping Point, which focuses on understanding the root causes of child marriage and on developing societal responses to sustainably end the problem.  While I was there, amazing groups of dedicated women explained to me that they knew their rights, wanted education for their daughters, and wanted them to get married later.  I asked women why they wanted a daughter-in-law who was young, and wouldn’t send her back to school.  Their answer: to have a daughter in law who takes care of the household and does the chores. It makes sense; to keep a household running in these communities is crippling work, each task magnified by difficult conditions, poor infrastructure, and few resources.  For these women, simply getting water—a task I accomplish by turning on the faucet for 30 seconds—can take hours of hard labor.  The burden falls almost entirely on women, so wanting help is no surprise.


When we visited a women’s group in Nepal, we saw almost exactly the same circumstances.  Mothers told us they want their daughter to get an education and wait for marriage, but they want their daughter in law to be young, have children right away, and stay at home to take care of the house. I've heard from staff in several countries--from Benin, to Ethiopia, to West Bank Gaza--tell us that mother in laws have a huge role in determining not just how old the bride is, but also how many children a family has, and whether or not they use family planning.


It’s a fascinating contradiction, wanting one thing for your own daughter, and something entirely different for someone else’s—even though your daughter in law moves into your home and raises your grandchildren.  It’s also a major cause of child marriage.  Because most mothers are also mothers-in-law—and the groom’s family often sets the terms for marriage.  Focusing on women as mothers, and talking about their aspirations for their own daughters misses an entire dimension of the problem.


As long as we address parents purely on terms of what they want for their own children, and not on the bigger picture of the whole community, we’re not going to move the needle on child marriage.  If the demand for brides is for young uneducated women to take care of the house, parents will still feel pressured to marry their daughters early, even if they know it will have negative consequences for girls and families.


It’s an exciting new avenue in the way we’re thinking about child marriage and how to prevent it.  Much of the work so far has been with keeping girls in school, building adolescents’ skills, and working with parents to either explain consequences or convince them not to marry their daughters.  But working with Rani’s mother is also working with Shruti’s mother-in-law, and widening our vision gives us new options for making sure Shruti and her children have a chance to have the same opportunities that Rani does—opportunities that every girl deserves.

About the Program: The Tipping Point initiative is addressing child marriage through a dynamic process of innovation, insight (analysis and learning), and influence through advocacy.  With the generous support of The Kendeda Fund, and in partnership with Siddhartha Samudayik Samaj (SSS), the Dalit Social Development Center (DSDC), JASHIS, and the Association for Slum Dwellers (ASD), the project focuses on facilitating and learning from innovative strategies to influence change-makers and root causes of child marriage in Nepal and Bangladesh, two child marriage hotspots. Read more about it at You can also look for more in our series of what causes child marriage here.

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About the Author: Emily Janoch is the Knowledge and Learning Advisor for CARE USA's Gender and Empowerment team.  She has 9 years experience in international development, focusing on how to work with communities to get solutions that work for them.  She has a Masters' in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School.

[1] Names have been changed to protect the privacy of this family.