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From Brazil to Norway, to Ethiopia: The many faces of child and forced marriages

Sex Og Politikk event in Norway

With support from the Ford Foundation, Promundo is currently conducting research on the issue of child marriage in Brazil – a country that has been largely absent from global discussions and advocacy around the practice.

As data collection comes to an end, Promundo’s team has recently had the chance to share some preliminary findings with partners across the ocean – first during a week of events in Norway, organized by Sex Og Politikk, and most recently during a convening hosted by the Ford Foundation and African Union in Ethiopia.

These events have initiated dynamic exchanges about the diverse contexts and circumstances surrounding child marriage – and the lessons that each place can offer when it comes to strategies for bringing this “universal” practice to end.

Child marriage in Brazil, an invisible issue

While child marriage affects both girls and boys, girls are disproportionately affected by it. According to UNICEF 2013 data, Brazil was the 4th country per population size in terms of women age 20-24 who were married by age 15. The country’s most recent national census reiterates the urgency of these statistics: according to data collected in 2010, over 42,700 girls aged 10-14 were living in a union.

Despite these startling figures, the nature and implications of girls’ early unions have been absent in national research and policymaking agendas. In order to better understand attitudes and practices around marriage during childhood and adolescence in Brazil, Promundo has recently conducted qualitative and quantitative research in Paráand Maranhão, in the north and northeast of Brazil, where the practice is most prevalent.

This has implied looking at both formal and informal unions (e.g. cohabitation), as the latter are especially common in Brazil, and pose similar implications to child marriage in terms of causes and consequences for girls and communities in which they live.

Exchanging best practices from Brazil to Norway

Earlier this fall, Promundo had the chance to discuss experiences from its own research in Brazil during the course of a week of seminars organized on the other side of the Atlantic by Sex Og Politikk, a Norwegian NGO. The meetings were an opportunity to discuss the sexual and reproductive health implications of child as well as forced marriages with Norwegian practitioners, policymakers and civil society  – in a country where, despite the low prevalence, these practices are far from eradicated, and often debated within the context of Norway’s policies of immigrant incorporation.[1]

More recently, Promundo had the opportunity to join a landmark international convening to end child marriage hosted by the Ford Foundation and the African Union (AU) in Ethiopia in October. The AU convening enabled colleagues across countries and continents to share practices.

For those coming from Latin America – including representative from Brazil for Promundo and from El Salvador and Honduras for UNFPA – it also represented a chance to begin collaborating on regional strategies, learning from what has been already done in some of the so-called child marriage “hotspots” in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Some of these examples came from the child marriage intervention and evaluation, Berhane Hewan in Ethiopia and from the AU Campaign to End Child Marriage in Africa.

A truly universal practice

The opportunity to meet researchers, practitioners and activists committed to ending child marriage in countless settings reminded us of the truly “universal” nature of the practice: it occurs in every region, amongst people of every religion.

Regardless of the country, child and forced marriage practices infringe upon girls’ rights and a number of development goals by exposing young girls to higher risks of dying during pregnancy and childbirth than women in their 20s, higher chances of dropping out of school than unmarried girls, and unequal power relationships that can lead to intimate partner violence and further contribute to the economic and social exclusion of girls. The intersection of these issues is a challenge to ending child marriage but also presents multiple strategic entry points.

All young people should have the right to decide whether, when and to whom they wish to marry. For this to happen, efforts must translate into adequate enforcement of legislation and policies, and the scale up of successful interventions in a sustainable way. Our research is beginning to show how engaging men and boys represent an essential step to enhance the impact of such initiatives.

Diverse contexts like Brazil, Norway and Ethiopia may face distinct challenges in their efforts to end child marriage, but they each have something to teach us about possible solutions. Until child marriage is a practice of the past, learning from these strategies has implications for countries where it has long been recognized as in the case of Ethiopia, as well as in those where research and discussions are just beginning, as in the case of Brazil.

[1]For more on Norway’s approaches, see the Action Plan Against Forced Marriage, Female Genital Mutilation and Severe Restrictions on Young People’s Freedom(Ministry of Children, Equality and Social Inclusion), and another on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality in Development Cooperation. The foreign ministry also has an Ambassador for Women’s Rights and Gender Equity position, and Norway is increasingly incorporating child marriage into its foreign and development policies including as part of the prioritization of girl’s global education.