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.

Dreaming Big at WD 2016: Ending Child Marriage

‘I was married when I was very young,” says Maria, 14, pictured here. “I used to sell milk to get food and sleep in the forest because I [didn’t] have a place to sleep. Society should stop bad practices, because what I have been through was so hard for me. After my education, I would like to be a nurse so that I can help other girls like me.” Photo credit: Modestar, age 12/Too Young To Wed

My dream is to end child marriage. I know it sounds naïve, but I refuse to believe that we can do nothing to keep children away from the bedrooms and kitchens of adult men. I advocate determinedly against the practice, often working directly with at risk adolescent girls in communities across the globe. Part of my dream is that those girls escape child marriage and then, empowered by their own story, join the fight to end the practice.

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Ashley and Isatou Jeng. Image by author.

I saw a bit of my dream manifest when I met Isatou Jeng at the 2016 Women Deliver Conference.

Isatou is from the Gambia. Her father died when she was three and her mother raised seven children on the money she earned by selling vegetables. Then, at age 15, Isatou became pregnant. Her outraged uncles tried to force her into marriage. “When a teenager gets pregnant they send her away,” she explained. “But I refused.” With the support of her mother, Isatou stood up to her uncles. “I escaped child marriage,” she said firmly. Then she repeated as if still in disbelief:

“I escaped child marriage.”

 

Isatou’s story may sound simple, but when girls leave a marriage they are often thrown out of their homes and shunned by their families. Christina Piaia, Director of Projects with Too Young To Wed, described a group of girls in Kenya who had escaped child marriage. “Most of them live in boarding houses,” she recalled.

Although Too Young To Wed is known for Stephanie Sinclair’s haunting photos of child brides, the organization works to protect girls’ rights and end child marriage. In partnership with the Sambura Girls Foundation, in January they conducted a photography workshop for ten girls between the ages of 11 and 14. Some were former child brides; others fled before their wedding.

The girls took pictures of each other and used photography “to tell their stories- stories that had never been told before- in a safe and comfortable way.” Then at a local photo exhibition the girls presented their photographs to the community. In a sense, they were holding the community accountable for enabling this practice. “They know,” Christina explained, “how many other girls are out there and still in a marriage.”

Recognizing the power of individual stories, Too Young to Wed provides an outlet for former child brides to advocate against the practice through pictures. The photographs also humanize the numbers. “Every two seconds a girl is married,” Christina explained. “That’s an actual girl. She has a personality. A story. Aspirations.” Isatou confirmed that “she who knows it feels it first.” Her organization, The Girls’ Agenda, seeks to empower girls through education.

Isatou and Christina share my dream of ending child marriage. By talking to them, I’ve come to understand that those of us who know about the practice owe it to the world’s girls to hold tight to this dream, no matter how distant or naïve it seems. “Girls,” Christina explained, “dream big. And so do we.”

For more information on how you can help us realize the dream of ending child marriage, check out Girls Not Brides, a global partnership of civil society organizations committed to ending child marriage and enabling girls to fulfil their potential.

Girls’ Globe is present at the Women Deliver Conference, bringing you live content straight from the heart of the action. If you can’t be there in person, you can be a part of Women Deliver through the Virtual Conference, by hosting an event in your hometown, and by engaging online using #WDLive and #WD2016.

Making Strides to End Child Marriage

More than 700 million women alive today were married before their 18th birthday.
More than one in three (about 250 million) entered into marriage before the age 15. Ending child marriage is not just a priority for the world, but a necessity that will enable girls and women to participate more fully in society. Girls and women are at the heart of global development, and when given the opportunity, education, and tools, can go onto raise healthier and smaller families of their own that will, in turn, contribute to their communities and society.

We have seen an increase into the awareness of child marriage, thanks to organizations like UNICEF, Girls Not Brides, Save the Children, and Breakthrough. Just this month, Let Girls Lead (LGL), based at the Public Health Institute, celebrated the Malawian Parliament voting to pass the National Marriage Law, which raised the legal age of marriage from 15 to 18 years. After over five years of advocacy by LGL partners and other key organizations, the victory guarantees a Malawian girl’s right to be a girl for the first time in history.

In Malawi, approximately 50 percent of girls are married by the age of 18, sometimes as young as 10 or 11. While it is a culturally-accepted way for families to lesson their economic burden the effects of child marriage are carried into a girl’s adulthood. Exposed to sexual exploitation, adolescent pregnancy, maternal death, infant mortality, malnutrition, equally transited infection and HIV, child brides have a greater chance for a life of poverty, and sometimes violence. Since 2009, LGL worked to provide individuals and organizations the leadership development, capacity building, and seed grant funding to improve girls’ lives. By engaging marginalized girls to advocate for themselves and other girls within their country, young people – especially girls – have been empowered to speak for themselves and against established cultural norms, including child marriage.

Other countries are joining Malawi in the fight to combat child marriage, including Tanzania, which has one of the highest child marriage prevalence rates in the world – almost 2 out of 5 girls will be married before their 18th birthday. In February, authorities in Tanzania and development partners signed a new commitment to increase efforts to end female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage within the country.

Last year, the world saw the first resolutions on ending child marriage adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, as well as the Human Rights Council. We saw the first-ever Girl Summit in London, focused  on ending FGM and child marriage in London. And we launched the Campaign to End Child Marriage, led by the African Union. Yet, the work is far from over.

Truly sustainable change demands long-term investment in advocacy, local leadership, and global commitment. As the global development community focuses on the post-2015 agenda and the creation of “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs),  we must continue to fight for the well-being of girls and women. We must demand an increase in investments that provide quality services to girls and expand opportunities for their future, such as education and employment. Girls and women must also gain increased access to health and reproductive health information and services to better understand their rights and futures.

Ending child marriage is not just possible, but a reality that is beginning to occur. It will require a continued effort, partnerships, and a serious global commitment. Working together, we can give girls’ the opportunity for the lives they deserve – lives they choose for themselves.

Cover Photo Credit: Jessica Lea DFID, Flickr Creative Commons

End Child Marriage: Girls Hold the Key to the Future

With their boundless potential, adolescent girls can be many things—but being a bride against their will should not be one of them. Adolescence is a time of learning, self-discovery, socialization, maturation, and fun. For the world’s almost 70 million child brides, adolescence is marked by gender-based violence, dangerous pregnancies, social isolation and crushing poverty.

Photo Credit: ICRW/David Snyder
Photo Credit: ICRW/David Snyder

Child marriage is an unjust practice that limits girls’ potential. In a recent Huffington Post article, Human Rights Watch Senior Women’s Rights Researcher, Agnes Odhiambo showed the imperative need for the global community, including leaders in countries around the world, to do more to prevent and end child marriage.

Ending child marriage is a very necessary step in addressing human rights violations against women and a key element of helping nations flourish.

Currently, the number of young brides around the world is staggering. One third of the world’s girls are married before 18 and one in nine are married before they are 15.

Odhiambo offers first-hand accounts of the troubling reality for many child brides she had met, saying, “Child brides were financially dependent on often abusive spouses, in part because they lacked the education and skills to provide for themselves and their families. I heard stories about girls who were so broken by the forced marriages that they contemplated suicide.”

At the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), we have found that girls who are married before age 18 are more likely to experience domestic violence than older brides. These girls often feel hopeless and depressed which are signs symptomatic of sexual abuse and post-traumatic stress. Instead of living out their childhoods, young brides are often forced to relinquish their right to attend school and forced to take on domestic responsibilities, including raising children. When girls younger than fifteen become pregnant, they are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s — and that is just the beginning of the health risks associated with marrying young.

However, as Odhiambo notes, there is a growing momentum from community and world leaders to address this issue head on. As a member of Girls Not Brides, a global coalition to end child marriage, ICRW continues to press for more attention and resources to stop early and forced marriages, and strive to better understand and promote ways to end this problematic practice.

In 2011, ICRW reviewed programs addressing child marriage from a variety of countries and contexts. Our review led to “Solutions to End Child Marriage,” a report that identifies five strategies that demonstrate promise in delaying or preventing child marriage.

The report showed that most typically utilized strategies to delay or prevent child marriage were:

  • empowering girls with information
  • skills and support networks
  • educating and uniting parents and community members
  • improving girls’ access to a high-quality education
  • providing economic support
  • incentives to girls and their families
  • enacting supportive laws and policies.

Understanding the local context and employing a combination of these approaches are critical elements of successful programs. The core of these strategies is instilling an understanding that child marriage is a harmful practice for girls, as well as to communities as a whole.

Education is Key

Photo Credit: ICRW/David Snyder

Efforts to educate girls, parents and community members about the dangers of child marriage and the benefits of avoiding the practice show promise in reducing the number of child brides. For example, we found that encouraging girls to stay in school through providing them or their families with incentives to do so was a particularly effective way to delay and prevent child marriage. Education also provides girls with the ability to not only advocate against forced marriage, but also allows girls to demonstrate their societal value outside of the domestic sphere. What we know provides us with a great starting point, but it is only the beginning.

Child marriage is an egregious human rights violation, and eliminating the practice should not only the responsibility of each country, but the priority of our world leaders moving forward.

As the international community prepares a global development agenda that will guide us for the next 15 years, there is no better time to step up our conversations and our actions for women and girls.

End Child Marriage, Accelerate Progress Towards the Millennium Development Goals

Child marriage devastates communities all over the world, with an estimated one-third of the world’s female population aged 18 and younger married off as brides. A horrific reality for millions of girls, child marriage involves painful lifetimes of gender-based violence, dangerous pregnancies, complicated childbirths, risks of obstetric fistula, illiteracy, and poverty.

Like organizations including Girls Not Brides, I believe that ending child marriage is key to accelerating progress toward achieving development on local and international scales. The perpetuation of child marriage interferes with the fulfillment of six out of eight Millennium Development Goals:

Goal 1: Eradicating extreme poverty and hunger

In common procedures for child marriage, prospective grooms offer a “bride price” to the bride’s parents to consent to him marrying their daughter. Typically, the bride’s parents accept the money hoping to escape difficult economic circumstances. Yet, the financial “gains” that families may reap are short-term, and cannot compensate for the long-term damage that child marriage incurs. A child bride does not receive opportunities for education and economic participation crucial to poverty alleviation. She and her family are locked in perpetual cycles of poverty, with hunger becoming a disastrous upshot, because food is unaffordable.

Goal 2: Achieving universal primary education

Often, married girls are prohibited from going to school – either by the law or by her husband. Accordingly, high incidences of child marriage are positively correlated with high school dropout rates. Social mores dictate that a child bride’s primary “responsibilities” are not to acquire knowledge and develop life skills in schools, but to bear children and tend to domestic activities. In certain societies, the younger the bride, the higher the price she fetches, incentivizing parents to not let their daughter start her primary education altogether.

Goal 3: Promoting gender equality and empowering women

Child marriage sees girls bearing the brunt of social isolation, sexual violence, and physical assault. Compared to women who marry as adults, child brides experience higher levels of domestic and sexual abuse, and the traumatic mental and emotional health consequences that ensue because they are at a formative stage of physical and psychological development. Husbands and their child wives do not have an equal stake in the marriage and reinforce antiquated gender roles, blockading equality and empowerment.

Goal 4: Reducing child mortality

When young girls get married and give birth, the health of their children deteriorates. Child mortality comes hand-in-hand with child marriage and child pregnancies; Girls Not Brides reports that “stillbirths and newborn death are 50% higher in mothers younger than 20 years than in women who give birth later”. Children of young brides also run greater risks of perinatal mortality (death as a fetus or neonate) and morbidity.

Goal 5: Improving maternal health

Child marriage is a major threat to maternal health; a child bride is unready physically and emotionally for childbearing and motherhood. Complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death among adolescent girls in developing societies, mainly because girls’ pelvises and birth canals are underdeveloped. Pregnancies among adolescent girls increase risks of obstructed labor, obstetric fistula, and urine or fecal incontinence.

Goal 6: Combatting HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases

In many developing regions, the incidence of sexual intercourse involving female adolescents occurs within marriage. According to research from The University of Chicago’s Center for International Studies, child marriage is linked to increased risks of HIV/AIDS because young girls’ bodies are unready for the “physical trauma of intercourse”, and their genital tracts have not fully matured. Hence, when child brides are raped, vaginal tears and abrasions may occur, making them vulnerable to HIV. The author of the resource, Juliana Shulman, also notes that:

The pursuit of pregnancy […] discourages condom use. In fact, protection is often simply not an option as known mechanisms all require negotiation and participation of both partners in order to be protective. Furthermore, young, married girls are particularly unequipped to negotiate protection, even if they desire to.

The conflicts between child marriage and the MDGs outlined in this post tell us: If we want to accelerate progress toward achieving the MDGs, we must amplify our voices to educate others about the harms of child marriage. If we want to see girls realizing their dreams and reaching their full potential, we must take a stand against child marriage. If we hope to see more equitable and inclusive societies, we should join and further the movement to end child marriage.

I believe in the power of coalitions of passionate people to spark positive, sustainable change at the community level. I know that if we wrestle the deep-rooted social forces that barricade gender equality and women’s empowerment, we can make a difference in the lives of millions of women and girls.

To take action today, you can:

  • Read Girls’ Globe’s posts on child marriage.
  • Learn more about child marriage at Girls Not Brides, UNFPA, and ICRW, and spread the word about why child marriage should end.
  • Take the Girl Summit Pledge!
  • Join the conversation on Twitter using #EndChildMarriage and follow the Girl Summit tomorrow, July 22, 2014 using #GirlSummit.
  • Donate to projects that support girls’ education in developing countries.
  • Foster discussions with community leaders or government members on child marriage and the need to enforce a legal minimum marriage age.
  • Encourage religious leaders to speak out against child marriage.
  • Give families alternate economic incentives, leveraging microfinance and entrepreneurship opportunities.

Featured image credit to UNFPA Asia.