Will We End Child Marriage By 2030?

In 2015, I attended the first ever Girls’ Summit on Ending Child Marriage in Africa. Soon after, I wrote about my experience for Girls’ Globe.

The event was inspiring and highlighted 4 key areas of action: education, economic empowerment, involving traditional leaders, and valuing the girl child. For this year’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, I would like to reflect on lessons learned in 2015. How has advocacy surrounding child marriage progressed over the past 4 years?

Child marriage robs girls of their futures, violates their rights and impedes on the development of their countries. It is a form of gender-based violence rooted in inequality.

The number of child brides around the world is estimated at 650 million. This includes girls already married and women who were married in childhood. South Asia has the highest number of child brides, followed by sub-Saharan Africa. Although the practice of child marriage has declined around the world, no region is currently on track to eliminate child marriage by 2030 as outlined by Sustainable Development Goal 5.

However, through multi-sector partnerships, significant strides have been made. In 2016, UNICEF and UNFPA launched a global program to tackle child marriage in 12 countries. The Global Program to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage supports nations in providing life skills, education, community awareness, and national plans of action to prevent child marriage.

Reflecting on the lessons learned from the summit, it is clear that there are many contributing factors that influence child marriage. Education, economic empowerment, and community involvement remain key to ending the practice. But efforts cannot remain independent.

Single-sector interventions have proven insuccessful in the past. For instance, many countries have yet to outlaw child marriage by setting the legal age for marriage at 18 (or above) for both girls and boys. Even in countries that do have legislation, additional policies and interventions are required to enforce the law and ensure compliance.

Moving forward, in order to end child marriage by 2030, global progress needs to occur at a rate 12 times faster than that of the past decade.

To achieve this, countries must commit to increased financial and legislative support as well as prioritize strengthened partnerships across all sectors. Child marriage is a form of violence which disproportionally affects girls and puts them at huge risk of future violence throughout their lives. To eliminate gender-based violence, we have to end child marriage.

A Beginner’s Guide to Stopping Time

This piece was written by Julia Z. – a high school student from the United States of America. All opinions are her own.

We hear our grandparents say it. Preach it. Sitting around a crackling fire surrounded by family. Those wise with age warn those who listen eagerly – live while you’re young, enjoy every moment, time moves so fast. We hear the poets telling us to seize the day. Time is an enigmatic topic that attracts scholars, academics, and even inexperienced teenagers like myself. Is it possible that when people tell us to seize the day, they really are warning us to retain our innocence for as long as the universe will allow?

Innocence is lost when the weight of the world is suddenly shifted onto the shoulders of an unsuspecting child. Burden, struggle, and responsibility are what make you transform from an innocent child to an adult who wears stress on his or her face like a child wears a smile.

What I am describing hit me on a recent trip to Ethiopia. Accompanying my aunt, who works on adolescent girls programming with the International Rescue Committee and is the Co-Chair of the Coalition for Adolescent Girls, I received the chance to observe first-hand what humanitarians do. More importantly, I experienced how their work impacts girls. I had the chance to observe a program called Girl Empower, which is true to its name. This program educates in order to empower girls. It includes training mentors who teach a curriculum about a woman’s health, her body, and her choices. This program opens discussions about topics that previously were difficult for girls to discuss: menstruation, gender-based violence, and harmful traditional practices. I was there for the girls’ graduation from this program, and it was amazing to see their emotion, their passion, and their happiness. By providing a safe space for girls to be girls, the program gave these girls something incredibly precious: time

Girl Empower stopped time, something physicists and cosmologists have been trying to figure out for centuries. Girls who were supposed to be married by age 15 were now equipped to be able to have safe, informed conversations with their parents and to make their own decisions. Their parents, who had been through a 10-12 month curriculum and participated in discussions about empowering their daughters, claimed they now knew about the negative effects of early marriage, such as dropping out of school, giving birth too young, and perpetuating the cycle of poverty. Whether or not this enlightenment will spread to future generations or even the girls in the town who were not part of the program, I don’t know. Sustainability of humanitarian programs in general is not guaranteed, but IRC is working diligently to build capacity of the community and support community ownership of the program, not just for the participants but also for future generations of girls.  Will these positive affirmations and lessons spread to others and continue spreading? Only the community can assure that.

The reason this program is impressive to me is not the long-term effects, but the brief intervention of the rapid maturing of these girls. For the year or so these girls are in the program they get a chance to breathe. They won’t marry early during this program (as parents agreed upon). So they are not somebody’s wife, somebody’s mother, somebody’s cook, somebody’s water fetcher. During this program they are just girls being educated, discussing difficult topics more openly, and learning about themselves and their potential. Their innocence is preserved, they understand what it means to be their own person, and they are not forced to grow up as fast as they would have otherwise.

There is hope that the lessons these girls learned about protecting themselves emotionally and physically will carry on beyond the life of the project. The power of knowledge, enlightenment, and time to think should not be underestimated. I hope that independently these girls will take what they learned and use it to empower their sisters, friends, and, eventually, daughters. Knowledge is cyclical; it can flow from generation to generation, and over time the community as a whole will benefit. Education radiates outwards from one source and can change the lives of many. The girls lucky enough to participate in this program can take what they have learned and educate others. Maybe, just as IRC did for them, these girls can stall the rapid maturing of other girls in their community. The future is female and one empowered girl can have a greater impact than you might think.

Photo Credit: Noah Silliman

Involving Men and Boys in Efforts to Achieve a #BetterLife4Girls

One may wonder why men and boys involvement in matters like teenage pregnancies and child marriages is important. Well, it is clearly because behind every teenage pregnancy or child marriage, there is a male involved.

In the wake of the movement to end child marriage and teenage pregnancy, young people, parents, religious, cultural  and community leaders have to be called to action. Because these are issues that affect girls directly, it is of peculiar interest how pivotal the male voice has to be to make sure that the plight of a better life for girls is heard.

The fight for gender equality remains incomplete without male involvement as we stated earlier this year here on Girls Globe and we won’t repeat the statistics.

One part of of our agenda, from our recently concluded community dialogues in the eastern part of Uganda on ending under-age marriages and teenage pregnancies by Reach A Hand, Uganda supported by UNFPA Uganda, was to capture voices of men and boys as a way to continue involving them in anti child marriage and teenage pregnancy advocacy efforts.

Men and boys from the three Eastern region districts of Mayuge, Butaleja and Iganga, where the dialogues were conducted, showed keen interest in the topics, voicing similar concerns when it came to the causes of child marriages and teenage pregnancies. These included parental negligence, poverty, radical religious practices, minimal law enforcement, child labor, peer groups, western influence among others.

Mr. Muyagu Benard, the cultural leaders’ representative in Butaleja district noted that parents have shunned their responsibilities. “Parents do not spare time for their children, while others are too busy talk about sex education with their children,” he said, before condemning some for still believing in gaining riches through marrying them off, even at tender ages.

Mr. Gidudu Emmanuel, Officer in Charge Criminal Intelligence Butaleja district, warned that child marriages and teenage pregnancies lead to fatal damages like obstetric fistula, and in extreme cases, loss of their lives. He explained that these young girls’ bodies have not matured enough to carry the baby, let alone deliver it. This could lead to torn body tissues, a lot of blood loss and the possibility of death. He added that these girls get pregnant when they don’t even have enough food to feed neither themselves nor their babies and some of the children end up dying of hunger. He called upon everyone in the district to fight for change.

The Khadhi (Islamic leader) of Butaleja district, Sheikh Hajji Swaib Hussein Mukama, highlighted the fact that this is an era where girls should be taken to school because they are the mothers and leaders of tomorrow. He urged parents and fathers in particular, to support their children under the umbrella of religion to avoid teenage pregnancies.

The men in Mayuge pledged to stop individualizing children and vowed to make them a community responsibility so that there is joint effort in taking care of the girls and fighting against teenage pregnancies and child marriages.

On the other hand the young men advised their sisters to stay in school, avoid moving alone at night which can lead to being exposed to risks like rape and defilement. They further implored them to abstain, use condoms when old enough to have sex and to stand up for their rights in cases where they are forced into child marriages.

One of the young men, Desmond Ali, the chairperson Uganda National Students Association (UNSA) in Iganga district mentioned how he has already started contributing to bettering girls’ lives, by carrying a pad wherever he goes incase any of his female classmates need assistance. He also pledged to include child marriages and teenage pregnancy as an item agenda during the Annual Iganga UNSA meeting in February yext year.

Men and boys are often untapped-yet critical- resource in the fight against issues affecting society, especially under-age and child marriages. By not engaging them, we are stirring the pot deeper. Placing them at the forefront of this agenda, will transform respect for women and girls.

Featured Image: International Youth Foundation

Ending Child Marriage is Family Planning

In my work I travel to cosmopolitan cities and remote villages to assist girls and young women in living the lives that they want- and deserve- to live. Today as I sat before an audience of activists, scholars and practitioners to present my research on child marriage at the International Conference on Family Planning, I remembered one particular encounter in Ethiopia.

I was with a team of researchers conducting interviews at a rural health post in the Amhara Region, where 50% of girls are married by age 15 and 80% by 18. Mid-day an adolescent girl who couldn’t have been older than 15 arrived. She was carrying a large clay jug of water on her back. She wasn’t part of our group, but she talked to my Ethiopian colleagues and eventually came over and sat on the grass next to me.

It turns out that this girl was looking for contraception. The previous month she was forced to marry an adult man and, since her best friend died in childbirth, she was terrified of becoming pregnant. But her husband expected children and so she sought contraception secretly, hoping that we were offering reproductive health services.

Too often health practitioners don’t know how to address the unique needs of child brides, which leaves them even more vulnerable to early pregnancy. Pregnancy and childbirth are leading causes of death for adolescent girls in lower and middle income countries. Countries with high rates of child marriage have high rates of maternal mortality. If a girl does survive, adolescent pregnancy has health complications, including anemia, malnutrition and stunting because pregnant girls are competing with their babies in their wombs for nutrition. Many child brides who survive pregnancy develop obstetric fistula, which is a severe childbirth injury that leaves the survivor incontinent.

That girl and I sat side-by-side for a little over an hour as she slowly inched closer beside me. Eventually our hands were next to each other on the grass, and then she moved her pinkie finger over to touch mine. I took her hand. And we sat like that, quietly holding hands and staring straight ahead, until she lifted that jug of water back on her back and continued her walk home.

FullSizeRender (6)Now, after three days of discussing programs and research aimed at ending child marriage, I’m more confident than ever that this horrific practice will end. In the meantime, whenever I’m sleeping on a chair in a random airport or trying desperately to hear my family through a bad Skype connection, I remember that girl. Today as I was about to present my own research on child marriage, I thought about holding her hand and how, in my heart, I will never let go.

 

My New Year’s Wish

Last night at a holiday party, amid Christmas cookies and carols, I was thinking about child brides. To be honest, I didn’t want to think about child brides; I just wanted to enjoy the party. But child marriage became personal to me in Ethiopia. Since that moment I’m constantly aware of how very interconnected my life is with that of the millions of girls forced into marriage.

Child marriage became personal when I was conducting a life skills program with young women. After asking about the women’s expectations, one particularly engaged woman stood up and told her story. Married around age 11, she was repeatedly raped and beaten by the man who is still her husband. “I just want to know,” she said with a firm but emotional voice, “how to make my life bearable.”

About two years after her marriage, she gave birth to her first child. I estimated ages, figuring that she must be somewhere between her mid-twenties and her early thirties. Then I came to a haunting conclusion: this woman was my peer.

To me personally, the greatest injustice remains that we stood side-by-side in Ethiopia, me with my life of dignity and she, in her own words, “with no life at all.” What would her life look like if she wasn’t forced to marry? If she wasn’t forced to get pregnant? If she was able to go to school and make her own decisions?

Her life just might look a lot like mine.

As 2016 approaches, I’m asking myself how we as a global community can help current and former child brides create lives of dignity among the most undignified circumstances. We must continue to work to end child marriage, but we can’t forget the millions of girls and women for whom that end is too late. Ejected from their familial homes and forced to live in a marital prison, child brides have voices that we aren’t hearing. My New Year’s wish is that 2016 is the year that we starting listening.

In 2016 nothing will change for child brides unless we decide to take action. Through social media we can hold humanitarian organizations accountable to this population while supporting those who are acting. The TESFA program, funded by the Nike Foundation and implemented by Care International, is working with married adolescent girls in Ethiopia. Your support, whether through a donation or through a tweet, tells Care that we are behind them. More importantly, it tells the world that we are behind child brides, that our humanity is interwoven with theirs, because we could have shared their destiny- and they should have shared ours.

Photo Credit: UNICEF