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How can the media do its part to end child marriage?

Press statement on child marriage by Girls Not Brides member Blue Veins in the Pakistani newspaper Daily Mashriq

Media coverage about child marriage has reached an all-time high, with more and more news stories bringing the harsh reality faced by 15 million girls a year to light. We have seen the nature of media coverage shift from focusing on the issue alone, to a narrative which also looks at solutions – be it a change in attitude towards girls, or raising the minimum age of marriage.

Last year, Girls Not Brides USA, GreeneWorks, International Women’s Health Coalition, American Jewish World Service and the Communications Consortium came together to explore the impact the media can have on child marriage, as well as the opportunities that exist to enhance the influence of the media and ensure responsible storytelling.

Here are some of the key points from the discussion:

The media can and should play an important role in shaping public discourse on child marriage.

The media informs people about important issues and helps shape how child marriage is spoken about and understood by the general public. Film and documentaries for example can challenge the perception that child marriage is something which only occurs in Asia or Africa, and has the potential to hold local and global decision-makers accountable.

The media adds a human face to the issue. Hearing and understanding things from a young girl’s perspective encourages empathy in a way that research and facts are unable to. By using stories with emotional and personal content we can show the public and decision-makers that girls aren’t numbers, they are people.

The media needs to be mobilised as an important contributor to development.

The media often acts to hold decision-makers to account for fulfilling their responsibilities to protect and uphold the public’s welfare. This can be achieved through praise and critique. For example, a media outlet can praise a government’s actions when it does good things for girls, such as increasing the minimum age of marriage or adopting a national strategy on child marriage, but it can also call them out for a lack of action.

The media must walk a fine line between advocacy and reinforcing negative perceptions.

By choosing to cover a particular story the media may in fact be advocating a particular viewpoint, and through the language used there can be the risk of reinforcing perceptions that child marriage is something which occurs only in certain countries, religions or communities.

The media has a role to play in portraying girls ethically and responsibly.

We shouldn’t be telling stories which take away a girl’s agency or make her seem like a passive victim. More nuanced narratives are needed to describe the multitude of causes which lead girls to marry, as well as to accurately capture their experiences within marriage. Information about the context of their lives and possible solutions to the constraints they face should be included so readers know how to engage when there is a clear call to action. The media also needs to bear in mind emerging research and trends which challenge assumptions.

The media should be accountable to the communities and individuals they cover.

Girls and women must be informed about where and how their own stories will be told, and crucially must give their consent beforehand. If a journalist cannot completely protect the privacy and consent of the individual, they shouldn’t be telling the story. Ideally, a journalist should also return to visit the woman or girl and follow up on the story.

Civil society organisations should be more opportunistic to expand the reach of their media stories.

A good way to increase the coverage of an issue is to link it to the most prominent news stories. For example, the current refugee crisis has proven to be an opportunity to also highlight the increased likelihood of child marriage during conflict and fragile situations.

Read the report: “Child marriage: emerging trends in the media“.