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Joining hands: Why ending child marriage needs global partnership

Photo credit: Tom Pietrasik ¦ Girls Not Brides

Efforts to end child marriage must bring together community activists and those working on structural problems. But just how does partnership work between 250 non-governmental organisations in 50 countries? Lakshmi Sundaram, Global Coordinator of Girls Not Brides, explains. 

Parents who decide to marry off their daughters when they are children do so for many reasons. Those living in poverty may feel they have little option but to accept the bride price offered for their young daughter’s hand. Parents facing conflict and insecurity may feel that marrying off their daughter will ensure her safety. And some families may choose child marriage just because that is the way things have been for generations. Often, the toughest question we face from parents is: “What alternative do we have?”

When we are able to have these conversations directly with parents, it is a good sign: a dialogue has started, a key step in the process of communities deciding to stop the practice of child marriage. But when a community lacks safe, accessible, quality schooling or opportunities for girls to earn an income, it is hard for parents to imagine a viable alternative to child marriage.

The challenge, therefore, is to make sure that we can link community-level work on changing attitudes with efforts to address more structural challenges, such as insecurity, poor schooling and a lack of economic opportunity.

Combining local community efforts with broader structural reforms

Take education as an example. Much progress has been made in trying to achieve the second millennium development goal of universal primary education. But there has not been the same drive to ensure that girls complete their secondary education. A study published by professor Anita Raj in the Journal of the American Medical Association last year found that, over the past 20 years, rates of child marriage in south Asia have declined for girls of 14 and under – in Pakistan by as much as 61%. Yet marriage rates for older girls remain static.

Professor Raj believes that community-level efforts to change perceptions towards child marriage – in tandem with improvements in girls’ education – have been vital in reducing the practice among younger girls. Indeed, because many girls drop out of school between the ages of 14 and 18, this may explain why rates of marriage among that age group have not decreased, she said.

It is clear that to end child marriage we need to combine work at the local and community levels with efforts to improve broader structural factors, such as access to quality education. But how can this be achieved when the scale of the problem is so huge? Every year approximately 14 million girls marry before they turn 18; some 400 million women aged between 20 and 49 were married as children.

Girls Not Brides, the global partnership to end child marriage, was formed in September 2011 to address that challenge.

What are the benefits of working in partnership to end child marriage?

The merits of partnership are self-evident: organisations that have long been changing attitudes towards a practice which, until recently, received little or no media attention can feel isolated. Many of our members have faced resistance, hostility and in some cases outright threats to their personal safety. When you know you’re not the only one trying to do this work, it does bring strength. The other main advantage is the opportunity to build a community of practice, learning from the experiences of those outside one’s silo and sharing best practice. It’s a concept that is proving popular: in little over a year and a half, the partnership has grown to include more than 250 non-governmental member organisations in more than 50 countries.

But simply filling out the membership form doesn’t create a community. As the secretariat, it is our responsibility to foster the environment that allows for those actions to take place. We know that we will not be able to achieve our goal of ending child marriage if national, regional and international-level advocacy efforts are not shaped and informed by the reality of local and community-level action. So we have been finding ways to facilitate knowledge sharing. So far our members have met in India, South Africa and most recently in Turkey, but it is not always feasible to bring 250 NGOs together. We are also exploring online tools, such as webinars, for information-sharing and fostering a sense of community.

The more the partnership grows, the more we learn. First, what we learnt that it is important to share how the efforts made by members at grassroots level are helping to shape the events hosted on the international stage. Using, adapting and sharing the same material across our membership is key to developing a common message. Second, we’ve had to build trust. For a year before the partnership was launched, there were consultations taking place to find who the key stakeholders were, what they were working on and what value the partnership could add. Ours is a mandate we have to revisit frequently, proactively seeking feedback from our members on what works for them and what doesn’t.

There is no one approach to ending child marriage

We try as a secretariat never to take credit for other people’s work. At launch there might have been a fair amount of suspicion about who we were and what we hoped to achieve. We therefore try to be open and honest about the learning process that we ourselves are on and the value our members bring.

Ultimately, we must accept that there exist fundamental differences in local contexts; there is no one approach that can work across all levels and countries to change attitudes to towards child marriage. Limited internet connectivity and language barriers are other realities we must confront.

We by no means think that having a global partnership is itself the answer to the problem. However, given the fact that child marriage links to so many other issues, and the groups working on it are coming from different cultures, contexts and disciplines, by building a sense of solidarity, pairing community-level efforts with national and international advocacy and encouraging a growing global movement on the issue, we are convincved it will be possible to provide parents with a viable alternative to child marriage for their daughters.

This article was originally published on the Guardian Development Professionals Network.