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Putting girls at the centre in Malawi

Grace is from southern Malawi. She has two young children. | Photo credit: Lindsay Mgbor / DFID UK.

Lilongwe, Malawi.

We have just arrived in the beautiful country of Malawi, escaping the chill of London for an exciting visit focused on adolescent girls. Too often, these young people are ignored in global development efforts. Yet, we also know that if adolescent girls can grow up to be educated and healthy women, these girls can transform their communities and countries into prosperous places. On this visit, we will be joined by a number of interesting and influential people who also care deeply about the wellbeing of adolescent girls, including the leaders of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, the US Government’s DREAMS initiative (a part of PEPFAR), the Global Partnership for Education, and GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance.

It has been a long journey to get here, in more ways than one. Since we started working on child marriage, it has been clear that we are not going to make meaningful progress unless we work with a whole range of organisations and ministries in different sectors. Over the years, we have seen more and more evidence emerging that highlights the links between child marriage and maternal health, education, HIV, and even climate change. Think about it. How can we expect to end maternal mortality, when 15 million girls are married as children and expected to prove their fertility early and often? How can we get every girl in school, if girls are being pulled out of school to get married? If we want to tackle child marriage effectively, all of these sectors need to work together, something we highlight in the Girls Not Brides Theory of Change.

Many civil society organisations have started addressing child marriage – and come to Girls Not Brides – through their work on health, education, human rights, child protection or girls’ empowerment. Our member organisations understand the links between these different issues because, every day, they see the realities of girls’ lives. They know that, for a girl to thrive, she needs to be empowered, to go to school, to access services that help her remain healthy and HIV-negative, and to avoid child marriage. How can she be expected to flourish if all these efforts are not joined up?

Photo credit: Erik Törner, IM Individuell Människohjälp

In 2015, after months of advocacy efforts by civil society, Malawi raised the minimum age of marriage to 18. However, the Constitution still has provisions that allow child marriage in the country. Photo credit: Erik Törner, IM Individuell Människohjälp

More recently, and especially since the launch of the Global Goals for Sustainable Development in 2015, there has been a lot more interest and talk at the global level about the need to work more holistically across sectors. However, while many people agree about the concept of working across sectors, it’s often very difficult to translate this into practice.

Earlier this year, Girls Not Brides decided to focus on better understanding the link between child marriage and HIV. Is it a coincidence that many of the countries with high HIV-infection rates among adolescent girls also have high child marriage rates? We produced a fact-sheet and infographic summarising the current evidence. Adolescent girls and young women are disproportionately affected by HIV and, unsurprisingly, we found that child brides are particularly vulnerable to HIV.

We highlighted child marriage at the International AIDS Conference 2016 in Durban by co-organising a panel on the topic. The conversation brought together some real heavyweights – Deborah Birx, the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, Mark Dybul, the head of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, Sheila Tlou from UNAIDS and youth activist Julia Omondi from Kenya. It became crystal clear during the discussion that the world needs to dramatically increase its focus on adolescent girls and young women. We will continue to fail them unless our efforts to tackle child marriage, HIV, and education are better coordinated.

Since Durban, we have continued our discussions with the DREAMS Initiative, the Global Fund, the Global Partnership for Education and others, to figure out how we can transform our talk and good intentions about the need for comprehensive approaches for adolescent girls into real, joint action on the ground. We have been exploring how we can better coordinate our own efforts, and also jointly make a more convincing case on why addressing the needs of adolescent girls and young women is so crucial. We definitely don’t have all the answers, and are still learning about what will be the best approach.

Of course, Girls Not Brides is quite different to the others in this group – as a civil society partnership, we neither fund nor implement programmes. Our focus is to ensure that efforts to tackle child marriage are a key part of programmes supporting adolescent girls and young women. We also want to make sure that civil society is a key partner in these efforts, at all levels.

Which brings us to Malawi. We decided to travel together to learn first-hand about the current efforts in the country to empower adolescent girls and young women. We want to better understand what it would take – politically, practically and financially – for a government, civil society and others to better integrate efforts to address child marriage, education and HIV. We also want to explore how each of our own organisations can increase impact through better multi-sectoral collaboration.

Speaking about why it is important to focus on girls and young women, Malawi’s President Peter Arthur Mutharika, who is one of the UN’s HeForShe champions, has said:

“I believe that gender equality, ending violence against women and girls, and the empowerment of women are key to sustainable social, political and economic development for my country.”

In particular, he has committed to implement the Marriage Act of 2015, which raises the minimum age of marriage to 18. It is clear that President Mutharika takes this work seriously: he is taking the time to meet with us on Thursday, along with the Ministers of Education, Finance, Gender and Health.

The coming days will be full of listening and learning – also from girls and young women, civil society, parliamentarians, UN agencies and traditional chiefs. And we are looking forward to visiting a range of programmes, to better understand what is really happening on the ground, in the communities. Needless to say, it will be a particular pleasure to spend some time with the dedicated Girls Not Brides members in Malawi.

The coming days will be intense. When we head back to London, we will consider the trip a success if there is increased commitment in Malawi to tackle the needs of adolescent girls and young women in a holistic manner, in partnership with civil society and other local and global actors. We also hope to have a better understanding how some of the biggest global actors in the fields of education, HIV and health – including the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, the Global Partnership for Education, the US Government’s DREAMS initiative and GAVI – can better work together in their efforts to ensure that adolescent girls are educated, healthy and able to choose when and whom they marry. And at Girls Not Brides, we will certainly take the lessons of this trip to continue to explore how to better integrate efforts to end child marriage around the world into the work of related sectors.

Our overall objective is clear: we all want a world in which all girls can fulfil their potential in all areas of their lives.