South Asian governments commit to end child marriage

South Asia is home to the largest number of child brides in the world. With this in mind, governments in the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) are taking important steps toward a strong regional response to the challenge. Following on the August 2014 adoption of a Regional Action Plan to End Child Marriage, representatives of SAARC member states recently joined other stakeholders in issuing a call to action, the Kathmandu Call for Action to End Child Marriage in Asia, presented at the People’s SAARC meeting in Nepal on 22 November.

The adoption of a regional action plan and issuance of the call for action are exciting and welcome developments and are indicative of a growing regional commitment to end child marriage. They represent specific commitments from South Asian governments to address child marriage, and are important tools for civil society to hold governments in the region accountable.

About the Regional Action Plan to End Child Marriage in South Asia

The creation of the regional action plan was spearheaded by the South Asian Initiative to End Violence Against Children (SAIEVAC), which is an intergovernmental body that is an apex body of SAARC. The action plan is the outcome of joint collaboration with a number of South Asian bodies, including the SAARC secretariat, the South Asian Co-ordinating Group on Action against Violence against Children, UN agencies and civil society actors including Girls Not Brides members, the Center for Reproductive Rights, Mamta Health Institute for Mother and Child and Plan Asia Regional Office.

The regional action plan is to be implemented in 2015 – 2018 and has seven expected outcomes including an increase in the minimum age of marriage to 18 for boys and girls; access to quality education; increased mobilisation of religious and community leaders and the collection of new and existing evidence.

How was it developed?

The development of the regional action plan started at a meeting held to celebrate the first-ever International Day of the Girl in 2012, which focussed on child marriage. The meeting acknowledged that the number of child marriages in the region were not decreasing and that action had to be taken. The meeting resulted in a draft regional action plan which was finalised at a meeting of experts held in May this year.

The regional action plan to end child marriage was subsequently adopted by SAIEVAC at its governing board meeting held in Dhaka in August 2014.

SAIEVAC is exploring partnerships with different agencies and development partners to operationalise the plan.

How can civil society engage?

In an effort to make the approach to end child marriage multi-sectoral, SAIEVAC has created national action coordinating groups comprised of civil society, ministries, UN partners and other relevant parties active in all SAARC member states. The groups’ objectives include building national alliances, with the aim of engaging collaboratively in global and national forums and supporting the implementation of the SAIEVAC workplan. The regional action plan will be a central component of the work of the national groups. If organisations working in SAARC member states are interested in joining their national group, they should contact the Chair of the group.

About The Kathmandu Call for Action

The Kathmandu Call for Action to End Child Marriage in South Asia was unanimously adopted by SAARC government representatives and other participants attending the South Asia Regional Convening on Using Law to Promote Accountability to End Child Marriage on 7 November 2014,hosted by the Government of Nepal and organised by SAIEVAC and Girls Not Brides member organization the Center for Reproductive Rights. It calls on governments in the region to ensure the effective implementation of the regional action plan and support a specific target to end child marriage in the post-2015 development framework. It emphasises the importance of using the law and legal strategies to promote accountability for ending child marriage, in support of the actions outlined in the regional action plan.

The regional convening, organised by the SAIEVAC and the Center for Reproductive Rights, took place in Kathmandu on 6-7 November. It was attended by government representatives from 7 of the 8 SAARC member states, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

The convening was important in building regional and national support to end child marriage and increasing the visibility of child marriage as a human rights priority in South Asia. Governments were commended for their national and regional leadership and were called on to exercise the same leadership in global debates. South Asian governments voices have been largely absent from international debates at the UN General Assembly, Human Rights Council and on the post-2015 development framework.

The Call to Action further calls upon governments in South Asia to establish a minimum legal age of marriage of 18, ensure the full and informed consent of parties to a marriage and provide access to legal remedies for girls. It emphasises the need for a rights-based approach which recognises the “best interests of the child” and the “evolving capacities of the child”.

The call for action was presented at the People’s SAARC conference on 22 November 2014 and will be disseminated amongst the various political channels of the SAARC member states.