It was the late American cultural anthropologist, Margaret Mead, who boldly said:
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.
To change the world, you need to work expansively, collaboratively, with a commitment to progress, even when it is a slow burn. The global movement to end child marriage has made significant progress and garnered greater attention in recent years. But shifting a deeply entrenched societal issue takes time, patience, and must be sustainably resourced.
Girls entering marriages or unions before their eighteenth birthday used to be an issue that existed in the margins. Now, thanks to concerted efforts of the global movement to end child marriage, it has gained the acknowledgement it deserves amongst the global development community as an issue that must be prioritised.
But girls need more than acknowledgement; they need action.
Child marriage’s drivers and consequences are broad, far reaching and long lasting. They are firmly rooted in gender inequality, poverty, and powerful social norms. They contribute to, and result from, poor educational access, and can be fuelled further by insecure environments or conflict settings. Indeed, today we are witnessing the effects of COVID-19 which has increased the plight of women and girls, and of climate change in contexts where natural disasters and extreme weather can mean greater vulnerability and heightened risk of girls being married as children.
There is no populated continent that can claim it has zero child marriages. 650 million girls alive today were married as children. Putting that in perspective, this equates to over 16% of the world’s female population. To really bring this home, in the time it has taken to read this introduction, 10 more girls have been married.
This is a global problem that affects millions. And so, it is the individual plight of every one of these girls that we must keep front-of-mind in all we do.
The size and scale of the practice of child marriage can be difficult to comprehend and a barrier to how we conceptualise movement building. A problem that exists on such an enormous scale needs to be met with a movement of comparable size, contextualised, and led by the right people.
The movement must be broad to address the multitude of factors that result in child marriage (such as lack of access to education or insecure contexts) and must reach deep enough to mobilise all stakeholders impacting girls’ lives – from the halls of government to places of worship, from classrooms to kitchen tables.
Our global Partnership to end child marriage has over 1,500 member organisations in over 100 countries, which is testament to the inspiring growth of the movement. We understand that ending child marriage is a keystone for achieving gender equality and broader development goals set out in Agenda 2030. We applaud the inclusion of child marriage across the development agenda as this is a critical pillar for our pathway to zero child marriages.
There are thousands of committed activists, young people, community-based organisations, NGOs, allies, and supporters working with girls to help them access their rights. Young girls and women are rising up and collectively saying: "This has to stop."
They are speaking up in their communities and advocating through global platforms to demand change. These are the leaders I look up to, the people who are the true proponents of social transformation.
If we want all girls to live their lives freely, we need to support and grow these movements at the local, national, and regional level. We also need to continue diversifying and widening the movement. New energy and many voices are essential to maintain forward momentum, including the leadership of young people and collaboration with interconnected sectors.
The world boldly promised we would end child marriage by 2030 in the Sustainable Development Goals, so we should deliver on that promise.
My call is for all of us to accelerate the work we are doing to end child marriage. To do whatever we can in our power and circle of influence to effect change. This is why Girls Not Brides launched the Power to Girls campaign in September – to call on activists, civil society organisations, allies to join us and urge decision makers to take urgent action to end child marriage.
Sometimes we can feel so small, like inconsequential players in a global game we cannot win. I urge all of us in such moments of uncertainty to remember Margaret Mead’s belief that even a small group of the thoughtful can change the world.
Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.
In the time it has taken to read this article 47 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 2 seconds
Dr. Faith Mwangi-Powell
Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage