How can we end child marriage?

In recent years child marriage has gained increasing prominence on international and national development agendas. Today, we have a unique opportunity to act on this momentum and accelerate our efforts to help change the lives of girls and young women all over the world.

Ending child marriage requires work across all sectors and at all levels. It requires us to understand the complex drivers behind the practice in different contexts and adapt our interventions accordingly.

Girls Not Brides has developed a Theory of Change to demonstrate the range of approaches needed to address child marriage, and crucially highlight that everyone has a role to play. The Theory of Change stresses the importance of long-term, sustainable interventions that are coordinated, well-resourced and the result of shared learning.

Within the Theory of Change, four categories show where the majority of our efforts are aligned: empowering girls, mobilising families and communities, providing services and establishing and implementing laws and policies. Ending child marriage requires work which is mutually reinforcing across these areas.

These four strategy areas are used to illustrate the types of effective interventions that are helping to prevent child marriage and support married girls all over the world.

Empowering Girls

Working directly with girls to give them the opportunity to build skills and knowledge, understand and exercise their rights and develop support networks, is an important part of our efforts to end child marriage.

Using an empowerment approach can lead to positive outcomes for girls and their families by supporting girls to become agents of change, helping them envisage what alternative roles could look like in their communities and ultimately helping them to forge their own pathway in life.

Safe Space Programmes

Safe space programmes which offer a varied curriculum covering life skills, health and financial literacy can provide girls with an opportunity to build their skills, learn and meet friends and mentors in an informal setting and learn about the services they can access in their community.

Safe space programmes can successfully build girls’ self-confidence, agency and self-efficacy, which they need to thrive. They can provide a good alternative for girls who do not have access to formal education such as married girls. Having a safe regular meeting place allows girls to meet with peers and share experiences which can reduce their sense of isolation and vulnerability.

Some of these programmes have economic empowerment components, such as conditional cash transfers, or the provision of a goat or chicken, which have proven successful in increasing the age of marriage.

Safe space session in Zambia, funded by the UK Department for International Development. Credit Jessica Lea | DFID

Supporting Young People to be Agents of Change

Supporting young people to be agents of change can be an effective and empowering process in and of itself. Many organisations work with young people so they can advocate for change as well as helping to inform the design of programmes that directly benefit their peers.

Youth groups, encouraging dialogue between youth and community leaders, and building the capacity of young people are all ways of supporting young people to be champions of change in their own communities.

Mobilise Families and Communities

Many families and communities see child marriage as a deeply rooted practice which has been part of their culture for generations. Whether the practice is cited as cultural or religious, it is often driven by inequitable gender norms such as an emphasis on protecting a girls’ (or her family’s) honour by controlling her sexuality.

For change to happen, the values and norms which support the practice of child marriage need to shift. Working with families and the wider community to raise awareness of the harmful consequences of child marriage can change attitudes and reduce the acceptance among those who make the decision to marry girls as children.

Working with men and boys

Working with men and boys is a critical part of our efforts to end child marriage. In many communities it is the men who hold the power and make the decisions. Interventions targeting fathers, brothers, husbands and future husbands are important in helping men and boys reflect on the status quo and see the benefits of a community which values and supports girls and women to fulfil their potential.

Religious and traditional leaders

Religious and traditional leaders, too, have the potential to play a key role in speaking out against child marriage and changing community attitudes. In communities where religious and traditional leaders play a prominent role in decision-making or influencing the prevailing norms, targeted interventions can support them to become positive advocates for change who fully understand the implications of child marriage for girls and their families.

Community level change

Community level change underpins all of our efforts in preventing child marriage and mitigating the harmful effects for married girls. Without change at this level, the day-to-day reality for girls all over the world will remain the same.

At the grassroots, organisations are driving change by campaigning, holding community conversations and using a variety of creative techniques such as street theatre and art to reflect on the practice of child marriage and communicate its harmful impacts for girls and their communities.

Changing norms at scale

Changing norms at scale is integral to the process of change and a growing number of organisations are using mass media campaigns and other innovative methods such as radio, TV and digital media to raise awareness of girls’ rights and the impact of child marriage.

Messages that promote new norms, role models and positive deviants show positive signs of being an effective way to change attitudes and behaviours around the value of girls and women.

Provide services

Addressing child marriage and supporting the needs of married girls requires us to consider the economic and structural drivers which act as a barrier to ending child marriage. The most vulnerable girls who have no access to a quality education, healthcare or child protection mechanisms, are at a much greater risk of child marriage than girls who do. Ending child marriage requires us to review the services available to girls as well as asking how they reinforce one another and how they can be strengthened.

Accessible, high quality and safe schooling

Increasing access to accessible, high quality and safe schooling is a critical strategy in ending child marriage and ensuring married girls have the opportunity to complete their education. Education builds knowledge, opens new opportunities and can help to shift norms around the value of girls in the community. The very act of girls attending school can reinforce to the community that girls of school-going age are still children.

Keeping girls in school is an effective way to prevent girls marrying but it is not enough. Girls need the support to make the transition into secondary school. For married girls, it is important that schools encourage and support them to continue their education in either an informal or formal setting such as being part of a safe space programme, undertaking part-time, remote or vocational learning.

High quality, youth-friendly health services

Both unmarried and married girls need high quality, youth-friendly health services to live healthy and safe lives. Many girls in the developing world have an unmet need for sexual reproductive health care which can put them at risk of early pregnancy and contracting HIV and other STIs.

Girls need to know about their bodies as well as the types of services and healthcare available to them. Making sure health services are youth-friendly and that girls are able to access care without judgement and without male supervision is also important.

Adequate child protection mechanisms

Ensuring there are adequate child protection mechanisms in place is an important part of our efforts to end child marriage. Establishing protocols on identifying the warning signs and addressing the risks of child marriage is a key part of this work.

Child protection services need to be accessible via a number of channels, including education, healthcare providers, community workers and the police. Working with service providers to build their capacity can help to ensure that cases of child marriage in the community are responded to effectively.

Economic security

Girls and women also need to have economic security if they are to live safe, healthy and empowered lives. Introducing economic incentives such as conditional cash transfers can help encourage families to consider alternatives to child marriage by alleviating their economic hardship and reframing the daughter as a valued part of the family rather than an economic burden.

Economic empowerment schemes such as microfinance or village savings and loan schemes can help girls to support themselves and their families without having to be married. Furthermore, ensuring girls have the opportunity to become financially literate and have the ability to open and easily access a bank account (without male supervision) can help them save in a secure way and become financially independent.

Establish and Implement Laws and Policies

Laws and policies play an essential part in preventing child marriage. Many countries lack robust legal and policy frameworks which can help to prevent the practice and support married girls. A strong legal and policy system can provide an important backdrop for improvements in services, changes in social norms and girls’ empowerment.

However for change to be truly transformative, governments must show strong political leadership by making the issue of national importance and providing adequate financial resourcing across ministries to tackle the issue holistically.

Strengthening, implementing and resourcing laws and policies

Strengthening, implementing and resourcing laws and policies which prevent child marriage is an important step towards recognising and upholding girls’ rights. While most countries legislate for a minimum legal age of marriage, the age of marriage is often higher for men than it is for women and many countries continue to have a legal age of marriage lower than in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Gender discrimination and loopholes in the law continue to be rife especially when it comes to issues around parental consent, the right to own and inherit property, separation and divorce and access to professional services and support.

Furthermore, many countries have a pluralistic legal system meaning customary law often contradicts and overrides national law making enforcement difficult.

Registering births and marriages

Registering births and marriages helps prevent child marriage by proving the age of a girl and her partner and means that girls and women are able to seek financial and legal redress if the marriage ends.