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Many Approaches, One Global Goal: Ending Child Marriage

Adolescent Girls, Adolescents and Youth, Child Marriage

By Rachel Clement

For one cold and rainy week in Amsterdam, researchers, activists and implementers gathered to discuss various approaches they are taking to end child marriage, and what more needs to be done. For some countries, like the United States, this meant discussing the ways in which we work with the U.S. government to utilize holistic approaches to ensure that child marriage prevention and response is a cross-cutting theme in development and humanitarian aid. For others, such as Zimbabwe or the United Kingdom, this meant tackling the issue of child marriage inside their own borders, which requires a different layer of reflection on cultural norms and social drivers that allow or encourage girls to marry as children.

img_6752The meeting was hosted by Girls Not Brides, a global partnership of over 650 civil society organizations from over 85 countries, representing hundreds of activists working to end child marriage and address the needs of already married adolescents. ICRW co-chairs the U.S. Girls Not Brides national partnership, which is more than 50 members strong and was the first Girls Not Brides national partnership to join the global movement in 2011, although the coalition itself dated from 2006 when it was formed as the Child Marriage Coalition, with a goal of urging U.S. policymakers to make ending child marriage a foreign policy priority. The global movement of Girls Not Brides is the result of global leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and Kofi Annan, who believe that world leaders should prioritize ending child marriage around the world. There are currently 8 National Partnerships, although representatives from 15 countries were represented in Amsterdam, and more national partnerships may launch in the near future. The Netherlands is the newest national partnership to join Girls Not Brides, which is why the meeting was held in Amsterdam.

As a co-chair of the oldest national partnership, I was excited to welcome Girls Not Brides Netherlands, the newest, as well as to hear from my colleagues around the globe, particularly in countries with a high-prevalence rate of child marriage, as to how they are working together to end child marriage in their countries. While organizations can be members of the global movement, participation in national partnerships means that organizations with varied skill sets and resources can collaborate on targeted, a national level advocacy campaigns urging their governments to do more, and better in efforts to end child marriage.

Tackling child marriage is complex; it requires holistic policies and programs that address child marriage as a symptom of deeply rooted gender inequality that undervalues girls. But as many representatives from national partnerships expressed, laws and policies alone are insufficient if not enforced and coupled with behavior change campaigns that address local contexts and concerns.  Some national partnerships, like Zimbabwe and the United Kingdom, focus on child marriage domestically, while others such as the Netherlands and United States, work globally to tackle the issue.

These diverse approaches are greatly-needed: 700 million women alive today were married before they turned 18, according to UNICEF, and one in three of those women were married before age 15. While the median age of marriage is increasing, the current rate of population growth means that, without intentional global action prevent child, early and forced marriage worldwide, we won’t see any change in the current numbers of women married as children (700 million) through 2050. The research shows that girls who marry early are more likely to abandon formal education and to become pregnant earlier in life, which is problematic because the research also shows that adolescents are more likely than women in their 20s to suffer complications during child birth, and their children are less likely to survive infancy and early childhood.  Child marriage is a human-rights abuse that is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Girls with the agency to delay marriage and who are free to choose if, when, and whom they marry are more likely to continue their educations, and have better health and economic outcomes in the long-term. The issue is highlighted in Sustainable Development Goal 5.3, with a target to end child marriage globally by 2030.

img_6730While the meeting in Amsterdam reaffirmed that individuals and community organizations working to end child marriage are ready to lead the fight in their respective countries, challenges remain. Many national partnerships cannot consistently meet in-person as they work in different parts of the country and cannot consistently meet either as co-chairs or with broader national partnership members due to costs associated with travel, and/or the technology required to host virtual meetings is costly or unreliable in many places. Others struggle with the best ways in which to integrate girls themselves so that movements on behalf of married girls or girls at risk of being married include those girls and their voices in the coalition itself. All national partnerships expressed frustration that gender broadly, and child marriage in particular, does not receive sufficient funding from donor governments or private sector donors, and that the degree of work needed to reduce the number of child brides, much less meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is not currently being met by global financing.

Greater collaboration in-country and across countries is necessary to deal with this complex issue in a holistic manner, and funding to support that work is a big piece of making that happen. The goal of ending child marriage by 2030 is feasible but ambitious, and without the hard work of Girls Not Brides members is key to delivering on this promise to girls. ICRW and Girls Not Brides USA are committed to building our relationships with other researchers, advocates, program implementers and policy makers across the globe, and see our role in this truly global movement as a key strategy if we are to end this harmful practice. The value of a global movement like Girls Not Brides that works together in this regard cannot be understated, and we look forward to seeing progress as a result of this collaboration.

 

 
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