In October 2017, the International Association on Adolescent Health (IAAH) held their 11
World Congress on Adolescent Health in New Delhi, India, called Investing in Adolescent Health: The Future is Now.
The conference featured researchers from all over the world, local and international global public health organisations and NGOs, the Indian Health Ministry, and most importantly, adolescents.
Indeed, adolescence is an ideal time to change harmful social norms, as it is a time of development, exploration, and questioning. It is also a challenging time for millions of adolescent girls who face the prospect of child marriage.
I attended three panels on child marriage, the importance of empowering adolescent and married girls, and the value of community-based programme, each providing thought-provoking insights into how to tackle child marriage. Here are my six takeaways:
1. We cannot end child marriage without changing social norms
Social norms around women and girls drive child marriage. It is therefore essential to involve families, including parents and in-laws, and the whole community in programmes to end child marriage. If we do not address harmful underlying social norms, sustainable change is not possible.
A case study from a cash transfer programme in Zomba, Malawi, shows how important social norms are to achieve long-term impact. Families that received cash transfers showed significant changes in the short term, such as more school attendance, less child marriage, delayed first birth, and less HIV.
Yet just two years after the cash transfers stopped, research suggests much of this progress was lost. Social norms that present educated girls as less marriageable persisted, leaving girls with few options outside of marriage.
2. Involve men and boys in solutions
Boys also need safe spaces, positive role models, and support. They are invariably involved in the issue of child marriage, so they are key players in changing social norms
3. Girls need alternatives to marrying early
Even if girls do stay in school and do not marry before age 18, what will they do after secondary school ends? If there are few employment opportunities and no way to pay for higher education, girls are left without options outside of marriage.
Niloy Mitter, from Tata Corporate Social Responsibility, shared an example of what’s working to give girls alternatives. In their child marriage prevention programme, girls train and go on to work as nurses. This ensures they have an income, skills and a profession instead of marrying before 18.
We must also make sure that vocational trainings do not enforce existing gender roles, for example by exclusively teaching girls gendered skills such as sewing or cooking.
4. Girls have rights, not only “value”
Girls have rights, not just value or usefulness to others. Sonali Khan, Country Director, India for Breakthrough said:
“We oftentimes only speak of girls in terms of their value. Their value to us, to their parents, to their society. I would like to move away from this terminology and instead look at it from a rights perspective. Girls have the right to an education, the right to their bodies, and the right to not be subjected to violence.”
Girls have the right to an education, the right to their bodies, and the right to not be subjected to violence.
5. Married girls need support
We cannot forget about the girls who have already been married, and who need just as much, if not more, support and empowerment. Findings from one of the panels as that girls who married early were less satisfied with the programme. Girls wanted more services and information on the negative effects of child marriage.
6. Better data will help us understand what works to end child marriage
We need more rigorous evaluations of community-based child marriage prevention programmes, and prevention programmes in general. This will help us understand what’s working so as to end child marriage quickly and effectively.
As a researcher and advocate, I felt invigorated after attending the World Congress on Adolescent Health, which strengthened my dedication to empower women and girls globally. I hope these six themes can help us find better solutions to end child marriage in the coming years.
In the time it has taken to read this article 26 girls under the age of 18 have been married
Each year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18
That is 23 girls every minute
Nearly 1 every 3 seconds
Emma Jackson is a research project assistant for the Center on Gender Equity and Health in the Division of Global Public Health at UC San Diego, working on projects focused on girl child marriage and the social and behavioral risk factors of HIV domestically. Emma recently graduated from the University of California, San Diego with a Bachelor of Arts in Global Health, and a minor in Anthropology.