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How empowering girls can help end child marriage

Credit: ICRW | David Snyder

Ann Warner, Senior Gender and Youth Specialist at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), blogs about girl-centred programmes can help to prevent child marriage.

By now, you are probably familiar with the statistics. Each year, approximately 15 million girls are married before they turn 18. That’s one in three girls in the developing world who lose their opportunities to play, to go to school, to dream about what their futures might hold for them. Their options narrow, their life paths are set for them as child brides, child mothers, domestic servants.

If you know these statistics, you might wonder, like I do: why aren’t we doing more to change these trends, especially when we know that child marriage is preventable?

Over the last few decades, and particularly over the last five to ten years, there has been a groundswell of programs that have shown success in preventing and mitigating child marriage by increasing awareness, enhancing attitudes, changing practices. The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) has identified five core strategies that have shown promise in delaying marriage for adolescent girls.

In a new ICRW report, “More Power to Her: How Empowering Girls Can Help End Child Marriage,” we focus on programs that work with girls themselves – girls who are at-risk of early marriage, as well as girls who are already married. In our analysis, we look at four promising programs – run by CARE Ethiopia, BRAC USA, Save the Children and Pathfinder International – that have been evaluated to show positive changes, and we conducted additional analyses to consider how girls were empowered.

Empowering girls: how does it work?

Our analysis uncovered three key pathways that are set in motion by girl-focused programs. Programs first provide access to critical resources, such as information, skills and social support. The acquisition and adoption of these resources then serve as the catalyst for three interdependent pathways.

The first and most fundamental is an internal transformation in the girl participant. Through participation in a program, she builds self-awareness about her rights to opportunities and alternative choices and absorbs new skills and information about herself and the world around her.

A second pathway provides her with access to alternatives to marriage or opportunities outside of domestic work, such as education or work or savings and loan activities.

Through a third pathway, she is able to influence others by increasing her mobility, visibility and voice in her home and in her community.

Together, these three pathways are how girls gain increased control over strategic life choices, including the timing and circumstances of their marriage, their sexual and reproductive health, and the quality of their relationships.

With these achievements, girls and women can potentially access other opportunities, such as higher levels of education, paid work, or public office, which will transform their lives and which are likely to positively influence their communities.

Mobilising communities to end child marriage

It is neither realistic nor desirable that girls alone can transform their lives and change deeply entrenched norms and practices. Girls’ empowerment activities should also be accompanied by other activities that engage and mobilize gatekeepers, shift norms, alleviate economic drivers of child marriage and improve institutions, laws and policies.

Understanding how to foster safe, acceptable and empowering alternatives to marriage, how to most effectively engage parents, boys, men and in-laws in a collective process of change, how to address other legal, social, cultural and economic avenues for protecting children and empowering women and girls, are all critical activities to accompany those that empower girls directly.

Child marriage in the Sustainable Development Goals

It is high time that we prioritize ending child marriage and put girls’ needs, rights and voices at the center of our global development efforts. We have a golden opportunity to take what we have learned from individual programs, which reach only hundreds or thousands of girls at a time, to transform the lives and opportunities of an entire generation of girls.

Right now, global leaders are crafting the post-2015 development goals, which will establish a global agenda for development priorities for the next 15 years. Prioritizing adolescent girls and establishing an end to child marriage will not only help redress injustices faced by millions of girls each year; it will also accelerate progress toward a range of critical issues, such as universal education, sexual and reproductive health and rights, reduction of poverty and hunger, the eradication of gender-based violence, and greater equality between women, men, boys and girls.

Child marriage is not inevitable. We have the information and the tools to support girls and their families and communities to end the practice. By doing so, we can change the world for the better for millions of girls, their families and their communities.

A version of this piece was published on Thomson Reuters Foundation’s Trust Blog on September 15, 2014.