Ending child marriage in South Asia: “a human mission”

Photo credit: The Elders

How can we end child marriage, a traditional practice that causes untold harm to millions of girls a year across South Asia? That was the question considered by over 70 organisations from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, that took part in a Girls Not Brides regional meeting in New Delhi in February 2012.

Ending child marriage will be no easy task in South Asia, where nearly half of all girls marry before the age of 18. That’s a higher proportion than any other region in the world. Participants at the Girls Not Brides meeting felt, however, that by coming together in partnership they can build momentum towards ending the practice.

Ela Bhatt, a member of The Elders and founder of Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) India’s largest women’s trade union, set the tone for the meeting. Describing child marriage as “violence” committed with “the consent of society” she spoke of the importance of collective action to end the practice. “It’s not just a matter of programme or project,” she said. “It’s a mission, it’s a human mission.”

Why does child marriage happen in South Asia?

Traditional perceptions of girls and women, cultural and religious practices, as well as economic considerations, all help to perpetuate child marriage across South Asia.

In areas where poverty is high, parents are often forced to make a financial calculation about their daughter’s future. In India, for example, it is the bride’s family that pays the groom’s family a dowry – the younger the bride, the lower the price that her family has to pay when she marries. Afghan participants at the Girls Not Brides meeting told of the phenomenon of ‘poppy brides’ in Afghanistan, where poppy growers who are unable to pay their debts have been known to give young girls in marriage to smugglers to whom they owe money.

Security concerns, too, play a key role in parents’ decisions to marry off their daughters. Participants shared that in Pakistan, for example, the devastation caused by the recent flooding has led to an increase in early marriage in some areas. During the conflict in Sri Lanka, mothers sought to marry off their children at a young age in an attempt to keep them away from the frontline.

Common challenges

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Nepalese participants in discussion.

There are laws in place to prevent child marriage in each country across South Asia, but participants at the meeting expressed frustration that there is little enforcement of the legislation. Local law enforcement officers are often unwilling to address issues as sensitive as child marriage or be seen as questioning local customs and traditions. There is also little understanding of the harmful impact that child marriage can have on young girls and their wider community.

A lack of concrete, reliable data on child marriage was also identified as a problem by meeting participants from across the region. In areas where few people register the birth of their baby with the local authorities, it is difficult to prove that a girl is younger than the legal age of marriage. And because child marriage often happens under the radar, away from the eyes of the authorities, it is hard to get an accurate figure of how many child marriages take place. That we don’t know exactly how many young girls marry as children only increases their vulnerability and isolation.

How can we accelerate change across the region?

Child marriage is on the decline in South Asia, but participants at the meeting agreed that change is happening far too slowly. Over the past ten years in Bangladesh, for example, the proportion of girls marrying before 18 has fallen from 73 percent to 66 percent. That’s good news, but that scale of change represents just a 1 percent decrease a year. At this rate, it will take more than 60 years to end child marriage in Bangladesh.

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It will not be easy to change long-held attitudes and beliefs towards child marriage. After all, laws will not be heeded if parents see early marriage as a positive step for their daughters. Participants at the Girls Not Brides meeting discussed how to raise awareness within communities about the harmful impact of child marriage. Given their influential role within communities, participants were keen to involve men and boys, parents, and community leaders, in programmes to end child marriage.

The focus of work to end child marriage, agreed participants, should be the young girls whom the practice affects. Empowering girls by keeping them in school, boosting their skills and providing them with safe places to come together and build friendships, were all identified as important strategies for ending child marriage across the region. More must be done to provide girls with genuine alternatives to marriage, and to facilitate a support system that enables them to make choices of their own.

Solidarity, unity and momentum: why come together in partnership

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Girls Not Brides meeting participants with Elders Mary Robinson Ela Bhatt, Gro Brundtland and Desmond Tutu.

There was a high level of collective will among Girls Not Brides meeting participants to end child marriage and improve the lives of some of the most voiceless and vulnerable people in South Asia – young girls and child brides.

Moving forward, participants agreed to share experience and information, collaborate on advocacy efforts and collectively raise awareness of the impact of child marriage. They were particularly keen to share information about what works – what are the proven solutions to ending child marriage?

Addressing sensitive issues such as child marriage can be lonely work. Participants felt that working together in partnership will help to end the isolation that they have long experienced. “Being part of a global partnership lets us know that other people are out there,” said one participant. “It feels like we are not alone.”


Watch a video of the Girls Not Brides South Asia meeting:

Together we can end child marriage: building momentum in South Asia