How to end child marriage in a generation

Reports that more than 200 girls kidnapped in north-eastern Nigeria have been forced to marry members of the rebel group Boko Haram bring home the brutal human-rights abuse—and, increasingly, security concern—that is child marriage.

Lyric Thompson Allison M. Glinski
1 May 2014
girls programme.jpg

15 year-old Usha participated in a leadership programme for girls in Nepal. When her parents started to plan for her marriage she was able to persuade them to delay it. “I thought: ‘I am the class leader. If I can’t prevent my own marriage, who will speak up for my classmates?’”. Flickr / UNFPAsia. Some rights reserved.

The issue of the marriage of children—typically girls—under the age of 18, has captured the attention of global leaders, academics and development practitioners. The practice is widespread, affecting 14 million girls per year. One in three women aged 20-24 were married as girls in the developing world. Child marriage not only harms girls’ health and human rights—it is a severe impediment to global security, equality and development.

When girls marry at a young age, they often face dire consequences. Early marriage leads to early childbearing, which is associated with higher rates of maternal and infant mortality as well as more children throughout a women’s lifetime. Girls who marry young are more likely to be exposed to domestic violence and have a heightened risk of contracting sexually-transmitted infections, including HIV-AIDS. Child marriage is also associated with poorer education and thus lower earnings throughout girls’ lives.

In 51 countries the rate of child marriage is 25 per cent or greater—meaning that 51 countries are losing their potential productively to engage all members of society in advancing their development. Drivers of child marriage are complex and varied but common threads include poverty, “tradition” and insecurity resulting from conflict or disasters. Girls from poorer and rural communities tend to be at greater risk.

The practice takes place in diverse countries and cultural milieu—from Brazil to Bangladesh, from Mali to Malaysia. While religious beliefs can perpetuate child marriage, no single faith is associated with the practice, which cuts across Christian, Muslim, Hindu and other religious communities.

Wherever it is prevalent, however, the core of the problem is the low value society places on girls and women. If we are to ever eradicate the scourge, we must confront the fundamental gender inequalities and discriminatory norms that underpin child marriage and its insertion into cycles of poverty and violence. 

At the same time, we must remember those girls—nearly 70 million—who are already married, who are among the most marginalised individuals in the world. In many cases, they have been taken away from their families and out of their schools to live in isolation from friends and peers.

Proven solutions

Daunting as the challenges are, there are solutions to ending child marriage, while meeting the needs of married adolescents. The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) conducted a systematic review of programmes, measuring associated changes in awareness, attitudes and/or behaviours. ICRW’s review of the evidence demonstrated tremendous potential for raising the age of marriage by building on several proven practices. Five common strategies have been used successfully to delay girls’ marriage in a variety of contexts:

• Empower girls with information, skills and support networks. Successful programmes provide girls with the skills they need to make their own decisions about what they want in life and the confidence to be able to act on those decisions. They also provide opportunities to engage with peers, thereby enhancing girls’ social skills and alleviating the isolation many in developing countries experience. Such programmes can help girls avoid, mitigate the harmful effects of, or leave unsafe relationships, including marriage.

• Educate and rally parents and community members. Families and community elders are still responsible in some societies for deciding when and whom a girl marries. Educating these important stakeholders—through meetings, campaigns and public information—about how child marriage affects a girl’s health and future often sparks powerful change. With new knowledge, adults’ attitudes can shift: they become more likely to challenge “traditional” expectations about the role of girls. For example, an evaluation of Tostan’s work in Senegal found reductions in child marriage through campaigns which encouraged community members to take pledges not to marry their daughters before the age of 18.

• Enhance girls’ access to high-quality education. Girls with no education are three times as likely to marry as those with secondary or higher education. When girls are in school, they are less likely to be seen as ready for marriage and can develop supportive social networks and the skills and knowledge to advocate for their own needs. Incentives, such as free uniforms and scholarships, and other support for girls to enrol and remain in school can help delay marriage. Programmes which improve the safety and girl-friendliness of schools, strengthening curricula and making lessons relevant to girls’ lives, are also effective.

• Provide economic support and incentives to girls and their families. Parents may benefit financially from marrying their daughter off early—by gaining a bride price or lowering a dowry or simply having one less mouth to feed. Enhancing the economic security of poor households can thus help curb child marriage. Providing a girl or her family with a loan or an opportunity to learn an income-generating skill can yield immediate relief for struggling households. It has long-term benefits as well, as girls who learn skills that enable them to earn an income may be seen as adding greater value to the family.

• Encourage supportive laws and policies. More than 150 countries have laws prohibiting child marriage. Advocating for the implementation of such laws, and raising awareness among government officials and community leaders and members, helps strengthen and enforce initiatives for girls’ rights. Where legislation is not on the books, advocating for reform is a critical first step.

Beliefs about marriage can shift as values and understanding change. When mothers, fathers and village elders see that girls can make valuable contributions to the family and society, they may be motivated to break from tradition and push for later marriage. In places like Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Egypt, girls have been successfully empowered and communities engaged, changing the value in which a girl holds herself and the roles and opportunities her family envisages for her. Such initiatives have been able to shift cultural norms and delay the age of marriage.

After the MDGs

The status and rights of girls were largely neglected in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Even under the banner of MDG 3, on gender equality, the only mention of girls was with regard to education. As global leaders shape the next global development framework to eradicate poverty and promote sustainability and security, girls must not be ignored.

ICRW is at the forefront of efforts to make sure this critical omission is not repeated. Through evidence-based advocacy, it aims to augment and support the chorus of voices—most importantly, of girls themselves—calling for a more powerful and a more girl-responsive MDG on gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.

The centre is pushing governments and the United Nations for a post-2015 agenda that asserts the rights of women and girls, including a specific target to end child marriage by 2030. And there have been some encouraging signs.

In March, a relatively strong outcome document negotiated at the UN Commission on the Status of Women endorsed a stand-alone goal on gender equality and called on member states to eliminate the harmful practice. The Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals has released a working document which includes a focus on gender equality and women's empowerment—including a target to end child, early and forced marriage by 2030. The Human Rights Council has passed a resolution on child marriage and several governments are developing national strategies and action plans to guide prevention and response.

These recent successes reaffirm earlier indications, from the UN secretary general and his High Level Panel of Eminent Persons, that child marriage should be included in the framework. ICRW will continue to advocate for attention to adolescent girls at the next Open Working Group meeting in New York, and will welcome the upcoming Human Rights Council debate on child marriage and a major event the United Kingdom will hold on child marriage and female genital mutilation this summer.

By the time the UN General Assembly convenes in September, much of the work to develop the substance of a child-marriage target will have been done. Advocacy with national governments will then will be absolutely essential to ensure a global commitment. Together, we can end child marriage in a generation. 

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