There is no single solution, actor or sector to end child marriage. Children and adolescent girls marry and enter informal unions – by choice or by force – for complex, varied, inter-related reasons.
Ending child marriage means ending gender inequality in all public and private spaces. It means transforming gendered norms and rebalancing power at every level so that girls and women can enjoy equal status with boys and men.
Focusing on rights and equality
Gender-transformative approaches to end child marriage are rights-based and comprehensive. They reach across sectors and have girls at their centre.
They are also intersectional – that is, consider multiple factors of advantage and disadvantage that influence a girl’s life – and take into account the effects of gender, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, caste, education, sex, sexuality, religion, ability and migration status.
They should be based on strong gender and power analysis, and respond to the practical needs of those most at risk of child marriage, and girls who are – or have been – married.
Find out more in our Learning series session on the topic.
Ending child marriage and advancing gender equality requires long-term, flexible investment, political will and collective action.
Insights to end child marriage and advance gender equality
The work of our members and team has helped identify 7 most effective responses:
1. Focus on adolescent girls’ rights and agency.[i]
Changing girls’ lives means working with families, communities, institutions and places of employment to remove barriers to gainful employment and girls’ and women’s political participation and leadership. It means ensuring they have the knowledge, skills, confidence, support structures and opportunities – including education, employment and livelihood options, and financial literacy – they need to make decisions and pursue their own lives and wellbeing.[ii]
Learn more about the importance of girls' rights and agency in Child marriage and economic justice.
2. Address structural inequalities[iii]
This means taking a systems-level approach to transform policies, laws, services and budgets that discriminate and put girls in situations of vulnerability or dependency.
3. Actively include youth and women’s organisations
This means recognising the ability of youth and women – and others that have been marginalised – to design solutions, organise and contribute to equality and justice.
4. Invest in quality education for girls
Keeping girls in school is one of the best ways of delaying marriage. Girls in education should be safe and have female role models and gender-aware teachers that affirm their value and challenge the gender stereotypes that hold them back.
Find out more on our Education learning pages.
5. Invest in sexual and reproductive health services, care and information
These services should be accessible, stigma-free and adolescent-friendly.
This includes age-appropriate comprehensive sexuality education, in and beyond school. Such initiatives need to support the right of all girls – whatever their marital status – to access the information and support they need to make safe and informed choices, avoid unintended pregnancies, delay marriage and enjoy healthy relationships throughout their lives.
Find out more on our Health learning pages.
6. Transform the gendered social norms that discriminate against girls
This includes norms that control adolescent girls’ sexuality,[iv] mobility and choices; limit girls’ social status to marriage and motherhood; expect them to do more unpaid care[v] and domestic work; and discriminate against people who are gender non-conforming.
Transforming these norms means working with families and communities to reflect on and acknowledge their existence and impacts, and lead change that enhances the rights and freedoms of all. Practitioners, researchers and advocates should also consider and improve their own – and their organisations’ – prejudices and behaviours.
7. Create safe spaces for critical thinking
This means encouraging inter-generational dialogue and self-reflection about gender roles, inequality and justice – including child marriage. This means strengthening girls’ knowledge of themselves and their context, and engaging those who make decisions about marriage – fathers, brothers, uncles – and opinion leaders in ways that respond to their context and culture.[vi]
Working with boys and men
Boys and men are also affected by gender norms that push them to behave in a certain way. Expectations around masculinity often require them to control girls and women, particularly their sexuality.
Gender-transformative approaches to end child marriage partner with boys and men to promote masculinities that have positive impacts on their own lives, and on those of their families and communities. For more information, see our brief on male engagement.
Engaging religious and traditional leaders
No religion condones child marriage. But many people interpret their faith to understand child marriage – and associated practices like female genital mutilation/cutting – as a marker of religious identity.
Because much of the world’s population has a religious belief, religious leaders have a powerful influence that extends to the most intimate matters, including sexuality, relationships and marriage. They also have legislative and judiciary powers to act at scale.
Religious and traditional leaders therefore make powerful allies to the movement to end child marriage. For more information, see our brief on working with religious leaders.
- [i] Che, S. and Ngo, T., 2017, “The global state of evidence on interventions to prevent child marriage”, GIRL Center Research Brief no. 1. New York: Population Council.
- [ii] Kalamar, A., et al., 2016, “Interventions to prevent child marriage among young people in low- and middle-income countries: A systematic review of the published and grey literature”, J Adolesc Health, Vol. 59, Sup. 3.
- [iii] Minne, V., Skakun, Z., Smyth, I. 2021 (Oxfam) Transforming gender inequalities: Practical guidance to achieving gender transformation in resilient development
- [iv] Petroni, S., 2018, What do (and don’t) we know about community-based approaches to ending child marriage?
- [v] Rost, L., and Koissy-Kpein, D., 2017, “Infrastructure and equipment for unpaid care work: Household survey findings from the Philippines, Uganda and Zimbabwe”, Household Care Survey, Oxfam.
- [vi] Petroni, S., 2018, op. cit.
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A journey to strengthen gender-transformative collective action to address child marriage - Lessons learnt from Nigeria and Mozambique
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Girls’ sexuality and child, early, and forced marriages and unions: A conceptual framework
Conceptual framework to support gender-transformative advocacy and programming to prevent child marriage and advance adolescent girls’ rights and agency by addressing the link between fear and control of sexuality and…
Transforming gender inequalities
Practical guidance for achieving gender transformation in resilient development
Useful resources on social norms and child marriage
A resource with a number of new global initiatives aim to better understand and overcome harmful social and gender norms.
Male engagement in ending child marriage
This brief provides a rationale for engaging men and boys in ending child marriage and synthesises some key lessons learned, guiding principles, recommendations and evidence.