How can efforts to end child marriage in Bangladesh, India, Niger and Nigeria be applied in Turkey?

Flying Broom visits child marriage project in Udaipur, India | Photo credit: Flying Broom

In Turkey we’ve only recently begun to speak of early and forced marriage as a social problem. It has long been a hidden trauma, despite the fact that it may affect as many as one in three girls in our country.

At Flying Broom, we started to speak out on child marriage in 2006 and have formed a national platform to call for action on this problem. But we know that there is much more to do. That is why, in late 2012, we secured funding from the Sabanci Foundation, and following advice from the Girls Not Brides secretariat, we visited projects that address child marriage in four countries: Bangladesh, India, Niger and Nigeria.

We wanted to learn from different projects aimed at tackling child marriage: what worked? What didn’t work? What could learn from these projects and apply to our own work in Turkey? Here are just some of the lessons we learned.

Good communication between civil society and governments is crucial

Our site visits began in India, a country with decades of experience in trying to address child marriage. In 2006, the country passed the landmark ‘Prohibition of Child Marriage Act’ which strengthened existing legislation to prevent and prohibit child marriage, yet little has been done to implement the law.

We met a number of fellow Girls Not Brides members who are pressuring the government to do more to implement the child marriage law and we joined them as they met public officials. This was important for us to be a part of because in our view it is always necessary to communicate with public officials and government. If there is no communication with decision makers and interaction with legislative processes then it is very hard for civil society to make any progress.

Adolescents can be the most active and effective advocates for change

In rural India we saw how effective community work can be if adolescents are at the heart of activities. We met the young leaders of the Jagriti project, a youth campaign in rural Bihar and Udaipur where adolescent girls and boys are raising awareness of the disadvantages of early and forced marriages among their peers. It is remarkable how effective it can be to hear from a friend or someone your own age that early and forced marriage is a destructive tradition.

Jagriti leaders are developing campaign slogans, going directly to schools to meet with girls and boys at risk of early and forced marriage, and going to small villages to convince community leaders of the harms of the practice. And it’s working. They impressed us very much!

Child marriage programmes will only be successful if they consider local needs: the case of birth registration in India

A huge problem in India is the number of girls whose births aren’t registered, which makes it easier for parents to claim that a girl is 18 years old upon marriage. We learned how URMUL TRUST FAMILY travels rural areas to register the births of girl children in hundreds of villages and to keep track of them until they are 16 years old.

While a lack of birth registration is not a common challenge we face in Turkey, it served to emphasise that approaches to end child marriage have to be tailored to local needs. Sometimes the education approach works, sometimes a health approach works. In India, there is a need for birth registration and I was fascinated to see how this civil society was covering that need.

Enabling mothers to earn an income can help them keep their daughters and delay marriage to adulthood

Sevna and Rema at a child marriage project in India

Rema meets young people involved in a programme to prevent child marriage in India

We chose to go to Bangladesh because, coming from Turkey, we wanted to see how child marriage was addressed in another Muslim majority country. But what we found is that rather than religious practice, poverty is the biggest driver of child marriage in Bangladesh. In many instances, families choose to marry off their daughters as children in the hope that they will have a better life.

That is why many of the civil society organisations we met are providing women with microcredit loans to enable them to set up small businesses and earn an income. What we saw in Bangladesh is that if a mother is able to earn a small income for her family, the whole family begins to change their attitude towards child marriage and keep their daughters in the family.

Mainstream gender equality: show communities the positive role that girls can play

It was also interesting to see how civil society groups in Bangladesh are trying to mainstream gender equality. In other words, they’re trying to show that girls can play an active role in their community and can do anything they put their mind to. While these organisations do not criticise marriage – it has such an important role to play in the community – they try to show that girls have a value other than marriage.

We met one organisation that set up a girls’ football team, which was coached by a local community leader. The girls didn’t have any football boots or uniforms but they were playing great football. We saw that! These activities help to convince families of their daughters’ potential.

Where poverty is extreme and facilities rare, collective action and raising awareness by radio can have a big impact

Ah, how I fell in love with Niger! I was amazed by its people, by how they work and how they manage to do so much with so little. Poverty is extreme in Niger and the resources are negligible, but civil society is doing some amazing work. By coming together and establishing platforms for collective action, small civil society organisations are able to make a bigger and bigger impact.

Literacy levels are extremely low in Niger and few children are in school. It will take time to build the schools and train the teachers that will mean that education becomes a viable alternative to marriage for girls. With such a high rate of child marriage – Niger has the highest rate of child marriage in the world – something more immediate is needed.

We saw that radio is one of the few ways to reach girls and women in Niger. A village may not have televisions for want of electricity; it may not have a school or a healthcare centre, but every village, every house has a radio. In Niger Girls Not Brides members are convinced of the need for a radio station to help send messages about the impact of practices like child marriage. Together with our civil society colleagues we’re trying to raise enough money to take technical equipment from Turkey to Niger and establish a community radio station. Please get in touch if you’d like to support our work!

Child marriage messaging can be included in many types of programming, such as healthcare

In Nigeria, we saw how important a healthcare approach can be. Obstetric fistula is an injury caused by obstructed labour and which often results in constant incontinence, shame, social segregation and other health problems for sufferers. Fistula is a huge problem in the country and a large number of sufferers are child brides.

We met organisations that are building healthcare centres in rural villages and are conducting awareness campaigns about the harms of early marriage. Girls who marry as children are at particular risk of injuries such as fistula because their young bodies are not yet fully developed and ready to bear children.

Ending child marriage in Turkey: applying what we’ve learned

The main thing that struck me from our travels was that yes, child marriage is a very common, very international problem, but if your approach to addressing the problem does not fit to local circumstances, you will not find success.

In August 2013, we will begin a new project to activate local platforms to address child marriage in cities across Turkey. Although we have a national platform, we believe that in every city, in every village we have to create further networks bringing together experts, influential community members, local institutions and of course adolescents in every city and every village.

In the first year we will work in a pilot city. We will do research about the needs of caregivers and victims in the city and after analysing this, we will create some training modules for our local partners on how to build a local platform that can advocate for and support the victims of child marriage in their community. After the pilot intervention we plan to finalise the training modules and over the next four years we will travel across Turkey to build a network in every city.

It is very hard work and it will be a long road, but we see that this local approach will be crucial in Turkey. Before our visits we were aware that a local approach would be needed here but the inspiration from these site visits helped a lot. Of course we made a lot of good friends in Bangladesh, India, Niger and Nigeria with whom we continue to communicate and who come to Turkey from time to time. We are continuing our relations with them and continuously developing our ideas together.

Following our travels I now have gained a vision for how we can address this problem. It feels like I have climbed one or two steps higher, so I can see more now.