Can religious leaders be our best allies to end child marriage?

Sheikh, Mohammed Dersa, the president of the Afar Region Islamic Supreme Council speaks of his role in preventing female genital mutilation (FGM) in their community. Photo credit: UNICEF Ethiopia / Mersha / 2017.

An assumption we often have to debunk, here at Girls Not Brides, is that child marriage is a religious problem. It is not.

Niger and Indonesia, two Muslim-majority countries, have very different child marriage rates: 76% and 14%. The Central African Republic and Mexico, where most people are Christian do too: 68% vs 23%. And India, a Hindu-majority country, has the highest number of child brides in the world.

Child marriage does not come down to religion but religion is important to millions of people. Almost 80% of the world population profess a religious belief. So what if we started seeing religious leaders as an asset to address child marriage, not an obstacle?

The power of religious leaders to end child marriage

Religious leaders are respected figures in their communities, often prescribing which behaviours are acceptable. A woman from a religious community in Zimbabwe explains:

Religious leaders are considered moral leaders and people look up to them, like role models. People believe and follow them. They try to imitate how they carry themselves

Religious leaders play many roles. They perform and register religious marriages. In some countries, they even influence the way marriage laws are developed and put into force.

People go to their local leader for mediation and counseling, and listen to their teachings in weekly sermons. This gives religious leaders many opportunities to talk to families about girls’ value beyond marriage and motherhood.

Religious leaders in action

There are already plenty of religious leaders to get inspiration from around the world. In Indonesia, female Muslim leaders issued a fatwa against child marriage and urged the government to raise the age of marriage to 18.

Religious leaders in Nepal helped develop the country’s national strategy to end child marriage. A few years ago, an inter-religious network also led a public campaign against child marriage.

Religious leadership happens in academic circles too. In Egypt, Al-Azhar University and UNICEF have looked at how the protection and development of children is central to Islam. Their manual draws on Koranic verses, Hadiths and Sunnas to provide guidance on children’s rights.

Without forgetting Archbishop Desmond Tutu, co-founder of Girls Not Brides, who has been a champion of the movement to end child marriage:

I have decided to give the fight to end child marriage my all – with the same commitment that I gave to the struggle against apartheid”

Working with religious leaders isn’t easy…

  • Religious texts are open to interpretation, which can be used to condone child marriage.
  • Customary and religious laws often allow to marry at a young age. In Lebanon for example, Shiite girls can marry at 9, Catholic girls at 14, and Israeli girls at 12.
  • Deference to religious customs over the protection of girls’ rights has stalled progress. In 2016 in Pakistan, the Council of Islamic Ideology demanded the withdrawal of a bill to raise the minimum age of marriage, considering it blasphemy. In the United States, the governor of New Jersey declined to sign a bill fully banning child marriage, claiming that it would conflict with religious customs.
  • Religious landscapes can be complex, which makes it hard to understand who to reach out to.
  • Religious leaders are so respected that trying to teach them can be viewed badly, especially when you’re seen as an outsider.

… but it is possible

Activists have seen how powerful the voice of a religious leaders can be. Here they share some of the lessons learned.

Know your context.

Where child marriage is most common, are religious leaders influencing decisions of marriage? If not, working with them may not be effective. If they are, knowing who holds the power and how to start a discussion is key.

Identify how to reach out to religious leaders and involve them from the start.

In Zimbabwe, a youth-led organisation worked with youth clubs and schools to identify the right leaders. A Yemeni organisation partnered with the Ministry of Endowment to reach Imams in the region. A community-based organisation in India met with local religious leaders, asking them to identify issues they cared about. Once you have that contact, involve religious leaders in your programmes.

A nikah khawan shares his experience with preventing child marriages during a workshop organised by Girls Not Brides member Sujag Sansar Organization in Pakistan. Photo credit: Sujag Sansar Organization.

Provide space for open and respectful dialogue.

Many organisations hold workshops to discuss the harms of child marriage, explore how religious texts can support children’s rights, and encourage religious leaders not to register child marriages. Shaming does not bring about change. Dialogue does.

One activist from Senegal explained:

Most religious leaders don’t want to do something on their own. Some religious leaders who took action on their own faced backlash in their community. Bringing leaders together in a seminar helps them with that”.

Develop messages that will mean something to them.

There isn’t a single argument that will convince all religious leaders of the need to end child marriage. Some focus on the health impact. Others will find the religious angle more effective – in which case, make sure you know the scriptures well.

Relying on international conventions on child marriage may not help. We heard from our members in Nigeria that, at one of their workshops, some Muslim leaders had refused to call for a minimum age of marriage, rejecting international conventions as a product of the West.

Most importantly, be patient! Social change takes time. There will be obstacles along the way. It can be hard to work with religious leaders but, with the influence they have, they can change girls’ lives for the better.

For more resources on working with religious leaders, click here.

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This blog was developed with the valued contribution of Girls Not Brides members and partners in Afghanistan, India, Malawi, Pakistan, Senegal, Zimbabwe and Yemen (including Apostolic Women Empowerment Trust, Blue Veins, Peace Foundation Pakistan, Progressio, Regional Network of the Children and Young People Trust, Tostan, Sujag Sansar Organization, World Vision Afghanistan, and Youth Leadership Development Foundation).

This blog relates to Goals C “Communities” of Girls Not Brides’ 2017-2020 strategy. The goal is about ensuring efforts to engage communities, families and girls are supported and highlighted. It also related to Goal E “Learning” which is about ensuring efforts to end child marriage are based on evidence.