Ending child marriage: what works? A look at the evidence
With child marriage, a girl’s childhood abruptly ends. Her health and future are in jeopardy. Her right to live a life free from abuse is violated.
We know approximately 14 million girls every year are married as children. We also know that there are ways to make a difference.
In an effort to understand what works to end child marriage, the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) looked at the existing evidence: when it comes to delaying or preventing child marriage, what works?
They identified five strategies:
- Empowering girls with information, skills and support networks
- Educating and rallying parents and community members
- Improving girls’ access to high-quality education
- Providing economic support and incentives to girls and their families
- Encouraging supportive laws and policies
ICRW also looked at projects that have had a positive impact on the lives of girls by preventing child marriage or delaying their age at marriage.
From Ethiopia to India, they identified four promising programmes for others to learn from.
Supporting adolescent girls in rural Ethiopia: Berhane Hewan
In the Amhara region of Ethiopia, Population Council‘s programme, Berhane Hewan (“Light for Eve” in Amharic) targeted married and unmarried girls, their families and their broader community to prevent child marriage and support child brides.
Girls, from age 10 to 19, were able to join groups where they socialised with girls their own age, helping them break the social isolation in which they often find themselves in rural settings.
Communities enrolled in the programme took part in conversations about child marriage and its detrimental impact on girls, and adult mentors were enlisted to guide and support young girls as they make their way into adulthood.
Because child marriage often occurs due to dire financial situations, families who decided to keep their daughters in the programme received a goat or a sheep as an economic incentive, as well as school materials to continue sending them to school.
The impact of the Berhane Hewan was significant: girls between the ages of 10 and 14 who joined the programme were 90% less likely to marry than girls in villages who had not.
Getting girls back into school in Egypt: Ishraq
Girls who stay in secondary school are more likely to marry at a later stage. In Egypt, Population Council‘s Ishraq programme (“Sunrise” in Arabic) gives adolescent girls who are no longer in school a second chance.
To help them return to the classroom, Ishraq offers adolescent girls a safe learning space where they learn multiple skills, from literacy and numeracy to health and life skills, as well as how to manage their finances.
Girls also have the unique chance, considering their marginalised, rural environment, of learning to play different sports.
All together, these new skills and knowledge boost adolescent girls’ self-confidence, giving them the drive to aspire to alternatives to early marriage and the tools to advocate for themselves.
At the end of the programme, Ishraq girls say they want to wait until they are older and to have a say in choosing their husband. In fact, the longer a girl stays in Ishraq, the less likely she will want to marry before her eighteenth birthday.
Empowering girls with reproductive health knowledge in India: Maharashtra Life Skills Programme
The Maharashtra Life Skills Programme run by the Institute of Health Management, Pachod in India has a simple goal: getting unmarried adolescent girls together for one hour every week, for a year. During this hour, they learn everything from reproductive and sexual health to communication and decision-making, and understanding local government.
Parents join monthly meetings on reproductive and sexual health, and community members are encouraged to enlist to become mentors to young girls.
The results? In a little over a year, girls’ age at marriage increased from 16 to 17 years old. They gained the self-confidence and skills needed to negotiate with their parents and have a say in their own lives.
Fathers, community leaders, and those with a say in girls’ lives, came to understand how child marriage presented a risk to girls’ health and became supportive of their reproductive rights and needs.
Using human rights based education to end child marriage in Senegal: Community Empowerment Programme
Tostan’s Community Empowerment Programme empowers women and adolescents in rural areas of Senegal with nonformal education in their local language. They learn democracy, human rights, how to solve problems, literacy and management of community projects, and about their own health and that of their children.
Through this three-year comprehensive curriculum, women and girls learn to apply human rights to their own cultural context and challenge harmful traditional practices, such as child and forced marriage and female genital cutting.
Eventually, village leaders and other community members are encouraged to join these conversations and stand up against these practices too. They then reach out to their social network to raise awareness on these issues and encourage relatives and friends to end the practices with them.
Since the beginning of the Community Empowerment Programme, thousands of villages in Senegal have made public declarations to end child marriage, and as Tostan programmes expand in the region, the movement to end child marriage spreads across West Africa.
Watch how a local leader chose girls’ education over marriage:
Future initiatives must make ending child marriage a priority.
The ICRW report concluded that the next generation of programmes must make ending child marriage a priority. They must take into account approaches that work, while continuing to test and evaluate innovative strategies across more countries and communities, adapting to local contexts each time.
Crucially, the needs and rights of married girls cannot be overlooked. They remain some of the most marginalised members of society.
At stake is the potential to create, not only a world where girls are free to decide if, when and whom they marry, but a world where girls and women are safe, valued and empowered.