Social Identity

Should girls be ‘controlled’? Opinions among young boys and parents in Bihar

  • Blog Post Date 13 March, 2024
  • Notes from the Field
  • Print Page
Author Image

Shubha Bhattacharya

Centre for Catalyzing Change (C3)

Author Image

Madhu Joshi

Centre for Catalyzing Change (C3)

Author Image

Anamika Priyadarshini

Centre for Catalyzing Change (C3)

The practice of child marriage among girls continues to be common in Bihar. In this note, Priyadarshini, Joshi and Bhattacharya present findings from their survey of boys and parents, wherein they construct an index for the “tendency to control women and girls’ sexuality and assertion of choice” to measure a possible factor driving this trend. Highlighting the regressive views of young boys in particular, they advocate for gender sensitisation at the school and community levels.

A young man was riding his motorbike, along with his wife. A policeman stopped him and asked to show his license. But the man had left his license at home. The annoyed policeman retorted, “the thing meant for home is roaming around and what should have been outside is lying at home!”

This anecdote was shared by a 17-year-old boy in Supaul district of Bihar. He was participating in a focus group discussion (FGD), as part of our study on the prevalence of early marriage in Bihar. Contrary to the study team’s assumption, none of the 12 boys who participated in the discussion condemned or critiqued the policeman for branding the wife ‘the thing meant for home’. Rather, the most common response of the boys was that the policeman was right in pointing out that the man should not have been roaming around with his wife. The wife should stay at home.

The study in Bihar

Such reactions were not uncommon in the findings of our study on the prevalence of child marriage in Bihar, conducted in 2021. A total of 12,690 people, representing 12 districts of Bihar, had participated in this study. Of them, 7,200 were youth, comprising girls in the age group of 14 to 24 years and boys in the age group of 16 to 26 years. In addition, 3,600 parents of youths (or primary gatekeepers), and 1,800 community leaders (or secondary gatekeepers) also participated in the study.

Our research employed a mixed-methods approach, consisting of both quantitative and qualitative methods. Qualitative data for the study were gathered through in-depth interviews and FGDs, and a large-scale survey was conducted to generate quantitative evidence. While all participants were surveyed, the ‘gatekeepers’ (parents and community leaders) participated only in the in-depth interviews, and youths only in the FGDs. In each of the 12 study districts, one FGD was conducted with girls and a separate one with boys.

The tendency to control women and girls’ sexuality and assertion of choice

We hypothesise that the tendency to control women and girls’ sexuality and assertion of choice (TCGSAC) is a key factor that influences the prevalence of child marriage. In our study, we constructed TCGSAC as an additive index, including the following perception indicators: whether girls should have the right to choose whom to marry; whether a married woman herself should decide whether to have another child if the firstborn is a girl; whether a man is the one who decides when to have sex with his wife; whether a woman should always be ready whenever her husband wants to have sex; whether it is a woman’s responsibility to avoid pregnancy in any sexual encounter; whether a woman should not initiate sex; whether a women should not go out of their neighbourhood alone; whether a woman who could not give birth to a boy child should be less favoured; whether girls should associate with boys other than family members before marriage; and whether a woman is a real woman only after she delivers a baby. These indicators were measured on a scale of 1 to 5, wherein 1 denoted ‘strongly agree’, and 5 ‘strongly disagree’.

A significant finding of the study was that, among all categories of gatekeepers (mothers, fathers, community leaders) and youth (unmarried and married girls; unmarried and married boys), TCGSAC was highest among unmarried boys (with 52.4 out of 100 displaying that tendency). Belief in oppressive patriarchal norms was also found to be high among this group. For instance, boys in Jehanabad district believed that parents have the right to take decisions pertaining to their married sons’ family planning matters. Similarly, in three of the 12 FGDs, boys maintained that they would expect their wives to stay at home, cook for their family, and look after their elderly parents. For them, early marriage also implied having a person to cook for the family sooner.

The qualitative findings of the study offered a relatively more nuanced reflection of the participants’ responses on TCGSAC. It was observed that most gatekeepers and boys recognised the tendency to control girls as a normal and desirable trait of responsible parenting. They emphasised the significance of a girls’ ‘purity’ for her own reputation and that of the family.

Girls’ access to digital spaces and education

In particular, the presence of girls in the digital (public) space was considered to be a concern by some gatekeepers. A community leader in Sitamarhi district was deeply concerned that even if girls could be stopped from going outside, “they are present in the bazaar and chauk-charauhas [crossroads] of Facebook and Instagram…and that’s more dangerous.” Girls also shared their anxiety around the rising influence of social media as some of their peers had eloped or married a person without even knowing them properly. Girls often experienced parents’ pressure in response to such instances, wherein they were forbidden from using mobile phones and sometimes were even compelled to quit school.

Out of 24 parents interviewed in-depth, 15 shared that they struggled after allowing their daughters to continue education. The mother of a senior-secondary student in Sitamarhi expressed her anxiety after letting her daughter continue education: “My daughter said she will study and get a job…she doesn’t want to get married right now. So, I told her you can study, but you will have to ‘be good’. What to do…these are not good times.” Like the parent from Sitamarhi, most parents had ‘allowed’ girls to continue education on the condition that they will ‘be good’ and remain ‘pure’. Nonetheless, they were sceptical and worried about not withdrawing girls from school/college.

Our study also substantiates available evidence on the pandemic’s impact on girls’ education, especially in secondary and higher secondary level, wherein more girls dropped out of school in senior classes. It indicates that, apart from poor condition of toilets and concerns around girls’ safety, fear of girls disobeying prescribed gender norms and finding a boyfriend are some of the most pertinent reasons behind parents’ decision to withdraw their daughters from school.

Although parents expressed high perceived utility of education, they did not seem to encourage their children to spend time on education. Our survey findings showed that about 58% of the girls and 50% boys did not spend even one hour on studies outside of school. Qualitative data indicated that the majority of gatekeepers, including parents, prioritised girls’ marriage over their education. One of the most common argument of parents was that finding a groom for an educated girl is more difficult, as well as expensive, because educated and well-settled grooms demand more dowry. Besides, they also voiced their concern around the positive association between girls’ education and their empowerment. A parent argued that educated girls start to form opinions, which in their view is ‘wrong’ and ‘uncivilised’.

Gatekeepers and boys claimed that in marginalised caste communities, families usually do not know how to regulate girls. Reference of caste also emerged in gatekeepers’ response on questions pertaining to the prevalence of child marriage. Most parents insisted that child marriage does not happen in their community and it happens only in what they referred as the “low” or “small” caste communities, or communities that are extremely poor and lack the culture or means for controlling the mobility and sexuality of girls properly.

Need for gender sensitisation: Role of schools and the community

The study’s findings on high prevalence of TCGSAC, especially among boys, reiterates the need to sensitise boys on gender issues and engage them, along with other youth groups, in initiatives aimed at bridging the gender gap. Gender sensitisation should be integral to the school curriculum, and special programmes should be conducted for out-of-school youth at the village and Panchayat levels.

The study also showed that parents’ educational attainment and mothers’ association with women’s collectives like JEEViKAwere associated with lower allegiance among youth towards patriarchal norms. Among all categories of participants, secondary gatekeepers associated with JEEViKA had the lowest TCGSAC. JEEViKA members also displayed a clear understanding of prevalent gender-based discrimination and relevant policies and entitlements aimed at bridging gender gaps. Hence, members of JEEViKA, along with the Panchayat and local community leaders, can play a crucial role in gender sensitisation of youth. This would contribute to shifting oppressive gender norms pertaining to child marriage, and strengthen the Bihar government’s campaign to end the practices of child marriage and dowry in the state.


  1. JEEViKA, or the Bihar Rural Livelihoods Project, is a programme spearheaded by the Government of Bihar working towards the social and economic empowerment of the rural women.
No comments yet
Join the conversation
Captcha Captcha Reload

Comments will be held for moderation. Your contact information will not be made public.

Related content

Sign up to our newsletter