This article was originally posted on Girls' Globe.
To say that child marriage and HIV among adolescents are linked feels a lot like stating the obvious. But I learned today, at Day 3 of the 2016 International AIDS Conference, there is very little formal knowledge to back that claim up.
he overarching message from this morning’s discussion was a simple one; it is really difficult, if not totally impossible, to tackle HIV unless you tackle child marriage. On the one hand, girls and young women make up approximately two out of every 3 new HIV infections among people aged 10-24 years. On the other, 15 million girls per year are married before they turn 18.
Two global problems of colossal scale with two sets of similar causes; gender inequality, poverty, rigid social norms, lack of education, inaccessible health information and services. And yet until recently, the relationship between the two has remained pretty much ignored. It was even suggested at one point that this session may well be a historic moment – recognition at last of their interwoven nature.
"Two global problems of colossal scale with two sets of similar causes; gender inequality, poverty, rigid social norms, lack of education, inaccessible health information and services."
Girls Not Brides, who hosted the panel, have created a fact sheet explaining 5 reasons why child brides are more likely to be infected with HIV than their unmarried peers. It also suggests 3 things that need to be done in order to end child marriage, and therefore make progress in tackling HIV. It’s comprehensive and clear, and you can read it here.
The facts and statistics are, of course, vital. But it was the stories of, and comments from, individuals this morning that seemed most powerful and most useful for advocates wondering how best to talk about the link between child marriage and HIV in girls and young women.
One of the panel members was Julia Omondi, a young woman representing Kenyan NGO Family Health Options Kenya. She spoke openly and honestly about real people from her community in a way that powerfully illustrated her arguments for action.
"The teachers are taking a stand because they know the pastor. So religious leaders have to be brought in too, they have an important part to play."
Julia used this story to stress the importance of including already-respected religious leaders in community advocacy and education:
“Where I live, there’s actually a pastor who preaches to the community against child marriage. And because of him, change is happening. Teachers in one school have now said that they don’t want older men hanging around outside the school, as they are luring girls into child marriage. The teachers are taking a stand because they know the pastor. So religious leaders have to be brought in too, they have an important part to play.”
To emphasize the need for education that reaches beyond basic primary education, Julia shared a story of a friend from secondary school. This friend, upon returning to the village she grew up in during school holidays, found that all of her friends had been married. She was the only one from her friendship group who remained un-married, and she was also the only one who had progressed into secondary education.
By grounding arguments in people’s real lives, Julia put forward a case for tackling adolescent HIV by simultaneously tackling child marriage that seemed difficult to contest. So, while more facts and figures are necessary and important, it’s ultimately stories, not statistics, that help us to piece together our view of the world.
"More voices are louder and more stories mean a stronger narrative that is more difficult to ignore."
Was this a historic moment? It may well prove to be. But only if more people now talk about the ways that child marriage and HIV exist in tandem, and share more stories that humanize the numbers and percentages the way Julia Omondi did today.
More voices are louder and more stories mean a stronger narrative that is more difficult to ignore. And the increased research, the prioritization of adolescent girls in HIV programming, the multi-sectoral national initiatives, the resources needed to empower girls, all of these are changes that will happen when the voices and the stories and the narrative become impossible to ignore.
In the time it has taken to read this article 11 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
Eleanor Gall is a writer for Girls' Globe. She advocates for the education of young people though A World At School.