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Child marriage: we require collective global action to support local change

Lakshmi Sundaram during "Too Young to Wed" panel discussion on child marriage in New York, March 7, 2013. | Photo credit: Gary He / United Nations Foundation

This blog was originally published by The Huffington Post

How can we tackle a problem like child marriage, a practice that has taken place for generations, across countries, cultures and continents? How can we address a local, family issue that is so personal to the girls involved, yet that has far-reaching consequences for global development?

Ending a practice like child marriage will require a change in ideas and behaviour at a local level. Yet such a change will only make a practical difference in the lives of girls when we’ve also addressed the broader structural challenges that hold them back, such as insecurity, poor schooling and a lack of economic opportunity.

To end child marriage, we must put adolescent girls at the heart of our development efforts

That is why, as governments discuss at the United Nations General Assembly a new plan of action for international development when the Millennium Development Goals come to an end in 2015, Girls Not Brides is making the case that to empower adolescent girls locally, we must put their rights and needs at the heart of the new development agenda. The new plan must also explicitly address child marriage, a practice that holds back girls, their families and their wider communities.

Child marriage is driven by a fundamental inequality between girls and boys, women and men, and it undermines so many of our efforts to reduce global poverty and ensure a life of dignity for all.

Child brides usually drop out of school, denying them the chance to gain the skills and economic opportunities to lift them and their families out of poverty. They are under pressure to prove their fertility, meaning they experience early and frequent pregnancies. We know that complications in pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death for girls aged 15 to 19 years old in developing countries; what we rarely highlight is that 90% of adolescent pregnancies in these countries take place within marriage.

With an estimated 14 million girls a year marrying before they turn 18, this story is repeated again and again, in country after country.

Lakshmi Sundaram

Child brides are particularly vulnerable to domestic violence too, and their children are less likely to live beyond their first birthday. With an estimated 14 million girls a year marrying before they turn 18, this story is repeated again and again, in country after country.

“Child marriage must be ended everywhere”

There is growing recognition that empowering girls should be a focus of the new development agenda. In May 2013, the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda presented a report to the United Nations Secretary-General, which recommended that the post-2015 development agenda include a goal to “Empower Girls and Women and Achieve Gender Equality” and that progress on this goal should be measured by achieving an end to child marriage.

In his annual report to the UN General Assembly in August, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reflected on a new development agenda and stated that to ensure the equal rights of women and girls and their full participation in society, “The practice of child marriage must be ended everywhere”.

Ultimately what will make a difference in the life of a girl vulnerable to child marriage is a change in her local context: when her parents decide that child marriage is not the best or only option for their daughter, when she has the ability to talk to them about the advantages of delaying marriage, and when she has the skills and opportunities to flourish.

Ultimately what will make a difference in the life of a girl vulnerable to child marriage is a change in her local context.

Lakshmi Sundaram

But explicitly addressing girls in the new development agenda, and calling for an end to child marriage, will prompt governments to invest in programmes that provide girls and their families with viable alternatives to early marriage, such as safe, accessible, quality schooling, and programmes that enable girls to earn an income.

It will also encourage investment in healthcare programmes tailored to the unique needs of adolescent girls and the strengthening of birth and marriage registration systems, so that we can target girls with the right programmes and services and prove their age at marriage.

Girls Not Brides has been building on the lessons of other social movements, partnerships and coalitions, to understand how collective global action can be used to support local change.

We understand that change for girls will be a local phenomenon, and our efforts are informed by the work of our grassroots member organisations who very closely with child brides and girls vulnerable to child marriage. We are supporting their work by helping to build a global movement of civil society, governments, donors, international agencies, religious and traditional leaders and local communities.

Together, by calling for adolescent girls to be a focus of the international development agenda, we can strengthen the global norm that girls are equal to boys and that we have a responsibility as a global community to enable them to flourish.

The needs and rights of adolescent girls and child brides were largely ignored in the Millennium Development Goals. As a new development plan for the international community is negotiated, we cannot make that mistake again.