Firstly, how did you enter this field?
I entered this field during an internship with the World Health Organization’s Department of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Research and the Human Reproduction Programme in 2016. One of the projects I worked on was the evaluation of a district-level, government-led multi-sectoral intervention to address child marriage in Jamui, Bihar and Sawai Madhopur, Rajasthan in India, implemented by MAMTA Health Institute for Mother and Child. That work introduced me to the issue of child marriage; the profound impact that it has on girls’ health, well-being, and opportunities; and the approaches that can be used to prevent child marriage and support the needs of married girls.
Could you tell us why you are interested in the mental health effects of child marriage?
I am interested in the mental health effects of child marriage because it is still a largely overlooked issue, especially with regard to effective interventions or approaches that can be used to address it. More broadly, I am interested in the issue because it reminds us that while we work to prevent child marriage, we also need to do more to support the health and social needs of the 12 million girls who are still married each year.
Can you tell us about some of the misconceptions (if any) that may exist when it comes to mental health and child marriage?
One misconception that comes to mind is that all of the effects of child marriage on mental health are bad. While this may be a tempting perspective for those advocating for an end to child marriage, it may not be entirely accurate, especially in places where early marriage is still seen as normal and is even expected. In such contexts, marrying – and later on, having children – gives girls new social status and purpose. That doesn’t mean that child marriage is good; rather it is a reminder that child marriage is deeply ingrained within community norms, and that efforts to delay individual marriages must be accompanied by broader social change.
How do you think we could raise awareness on the topic of mental health consequences of child marriage in general?
First, I think efforts in this area must go hand-in-hand with efforts to address stigma around mental health more generally. Until mental health is seen as an issue that deserves care just like malaria or diabetes, the lack of attention and action will persist. Second, I think we should do more to center the voices of girls and women who have experienced the mental health consequences of child marriage first-hand, in a way that is sensitive and responsive to the challenges and even trauma they may have faced. These girls and women will be best placed to describe their experiences and to express what could have helped them to overcome the challenges they faced.
How do you think other people could contribute and help make a difference?
To begin, I think the most important thing we can do to help make a difference is to make sure that mental health considerations are integrated within our work on child marriage. While we don’t yet have all the answers as to what needs to be done, this can help to ensure that we are at least not blind to the issue. We also need to place these considerations within the context of the profound impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health, more generally, and ensure that sources of support for girls and women in crisis are available and accessible.
How do you think we could encourage future research in this field?
I think we could encourage future research in this field by first having a clear articulation about what we know and what we still need to learn. This can help to guide the research agenda, to ensure that the research that is carried out indeed fills a gap and moves the field forward. Then, research capacity strengthening is needed to equip researchers with the skills and methodologies to investigate this complicated topic, and funders need to support research in this area.