The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) this month discussed proven approaches to end child marriage with The Elders, an eminent group of global leaders, during a strategic planning meeting convened by the group in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. ICRW’s Anju Malhotra presented a preview of ICRW’s report, “Solutions to End Child Marriage: What the Evidence Shows,” and helped inform The Elders in their goal to build a global alliance to end child marriage.
The Elders were brought together by former South African president, Nelson Mandela, in an effort to use members’ influence and experience to address some of the world’s most pressing problems. One of the group’s objectives is to promote equality for women and girls, and ending child marriage is an initiative under that umbrella. For the June gathering, The Elders convened representatives from 55 organizations to share information about effective approaches to address child marriage, explore how to give the issue more visibility in global policy and discuss the objectives of forming a global alliance to combat child marriage.
The meeting "would have been incomplete" without ICRW's presence, said Mabel van Oranje, chief executive officer of The Elders. "From the very beginning of The Elders' involvement in this issue, it has been clear that ICRW is a leading organization in this field and has an enormous amount of experience and knowledge."
Malhotra and ICRW’s Priya Nanda were among several experts who presented before like-minded colleagues and four members of The Elders in attendance: Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; Archbishop Desmond Tutu, chairman of The Elders and former chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission; Dr. Gro Brundtland, Norway’s former prime minister and the ex-director of the World Health Organization; and Graça Machel, a well-known international advocate for women’s and children’s rights and president of Mozambique’s Foundation for Community Development.
The Elders opened the two-day meeting by discussing the scope of child marriage and why they feel it deserves more attention than it currently receives. According to a summary provided by the group, Archbishop Tutu said he was “shattered” to meet Ethiopian women and girls who had married as young as 8 years old. “You can understand something cerebrally,” he said, “but it is not the same when it is translated into flesh and blood.” Child marriage is particularly prevalent in Ethiopia, where nearly half of all girls are married before they turn 18.
ICRW’s involvement with the meeting represents a two-year relationship with The Elders, who have consulted with Malhotra on the issue of child marriage, its consequences, and what works to prevent it. "ICRW has helped us, and the Elders themselves, to better understand the magnitude of the problem," van Oranje said, "and its relationship to other development challenges such as maternal health, education and the empowerment of girls and women."
It's an issue that ICRW has been studying for more than a decade. Among the organization’s current projects that address child marriage or work with child brides is an evaluation of India’s conditional cash transfer program to prevent child marriage, which Nanda directs, and a project in Ethiopia that teaches recently-wedded girls about earning and saving money as well as about reproductive health.
ICRW’s research evidence shows that arming girls with information – about how their bodies work, what sex is, how to make healthy life decisions – is key to preventing early marriage. This approach is most effective when done while simultaneously educating girls’ communities about the issue and creating an environment in which alternatives to early marriage are supported.
Indeed, participants at The Elders meeting agreed that local communities must be on board to end child marriage, and that interventions should be holistic, multi-faceted and rights-based. They said that a global alliance could help accelerate the process and expressed interest in forming national alliances for change, as well.
Malhotra and others also agreed that The Elders should now focus on writing a mission statement for the global alliance and developing a work plan that synergizes the activities of organizations addressing child marriage in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Gillian Gaynair is ICRW’s writer and editor.
The following video features highlights from The Elders’ meeting and their visit with child brides in Ethiopia’s Amhara region: