It was a joy to see almost 500 activists from over 70 countries come together at the recent Girls Not Brides Global Meeting in Kuala Lumpur, all working to end child marriage. There were so many exciting and informative discussions at the meeting. In the coming weeks, my colleagues and I at the Girls Not Brides secretariat will be reflecting on these, synthesizing learnings and reporting back to you on next steps. However, in the meantime, I wanted to share with you a few of the key points that immediately struck me as I left Kuala Lumpur:
1. Collaborative action has impact – but the ‘how’ of partnership building is just as important as the ‘what’. We heard again and again about how working collectively at local, national, regional and global levels has led to some exciting successes – members have been able to effectively share learning, conduct joint advocacy, change local attitudes, influence national and regional strategies, leverage new resources, hold governments accountable and build South-South collaboration. However, for partnerships to thrive and have the greatest impact, they need to include a diversity of voices and be managed effectively. Participants spoke of the importance of building up mutual trust and respect between diverse members, having equitable structures and ensuring all voices are heard.
2. Young people are key change-makers. Throughout the Global Meeting, youth activists shared examples of how their work has led to concrete changes in the lives of girls. It was clear that if we want to end child marriage, we have to empower youth and youth-led organisations and ensure they have the agency to make decisions about their present and future.
3. Women and girls who have experienced child marriage are amongst the most powerful advocates in efforts to end child marriage, but they need appropriate support to share their stories safely and effectively. They must also be involved in designing policies and programmes to address the issue. Furthermore, it’s critical that the global movement to end child marriage doesn’t just focus on prevention – we have to address the needs of married girls in a holistic manner.
4. Addressing gender inequality has to be at the heart of everything we do. It is the fundamental cause of child marriage, and we need to recognise this across our work. We also need to address the diverse needs of women and girls to ensure we leave no girl behind. And we heard again and again that men and boys are not just part of the problem; they can be a key part of the solution to ending child marriage.
5. We’re starting to tackle some difficult discussions. We may not always agree on how to address some key aspects of child marriage, but that’s not a bad thing because important learnings emerge through debate. However, we need to have the courage to discuss some of these difficult topics – including sexuality, social norms and power and race dynamics – openly and respectfully. We’re not going to make progress on ending child marriage if we’re not willing to take these conversations beyond the Global Meeting.
6. There’s more evidence than ever before on child marriage. We have seen major advances in new learning on the drivers of child marriage and effective responses, including on changing and measuring social norms, gender-transformative approaches, sexuality, informal unions and adolescent pregnancy. We heard about how child marriage can look quite different across countries, and even across regions within a country. In particular, discussions about child marriage in Latin America and South-East Asia highlighted some new issues that the global movement will need to consider further.
7. But we're also having to deal with emerging challenges. We learned more about the impact of natural disasters, forced migration and conflicts on child marriage rates in different regions, and how we need to respond more effectively. Our members are also dealing with closing civic space and backlash from religious and political conservative forces. These can severely hamper efforts to end child marriage.
8. Community-based organisations bring unique skills to the table. Throughout the Global Meeting we heard about the innovative, flexible and locally appropriate approaches organisations are using to tackle child marriage and support married and unmarried girls in different regions, including in humanitarian contexts and fragile states. Examples of exciting programmes include community-based safe spaces for girls, inter-generational partnerships to challenge local norms and community empowerment programmes.
9. There’s not enough money to bring about change at the scale we need. Efforts to end child marriage at all levels need adequate resources if we want to end the practice. Governments need to commit adequate budget lines to implement national strategies – and we will need to hold them to account. Civil society groups – especially working at the local level – are particularly underfunded, and we need to bring new donors into the field.
10. We need to grow the movement and coordinate better. If we want to make progress, we need to bring in new actors who focus on education, health, justice, economic empowerment, social protection, nutrition and humanitarian relief. We also need to go beyond our comfort zone, and create ‘unusual allies’, including religious leaders. And we will only be effective if we work together and break down traditional silos at the global, national and community levels, to avoid duplication of efforts and gaps in our response.
I left Kuala Lumpur exhausted but incredibly energised – and with countless new friends. I was blown away by the commitment and enthusiasm of participants at the Global Meeting. The maturity and frankness of the discussions I took part in made it clear that this meeting marks a turning point in the global movement to end child marriage. I look forward to following up with you all to ensure we create a better world for girls everywhere.
Executive Director, Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage
In the time it has taken to read this article 60 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
Girls Not Brides
Lakshmi Sundaram is Executive Director of Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage. She is responsible for ensuring that Girls Not Brides delivers on its strategy and advances our collective efforts to end child marriage.