Students, not brides: Why ending child marriage and advancing girls’ education must go hand in hand

Digital Development Debates

When asked about the changes they most wanted to see in the world, over 200,000 people ranked “a good education” as their top priority. This is the initial result of MY World, a global survey led by the United Nations to help define the next set of development goals to address world poverty. It sends a clear message to governments and international leaders: for a better world, make quality education accessible to all.

We cannot envision a bright future for young people, however, as long as girls are married before they even have the chance to finish school. In the coming decade, approximately 14.2 million girls will be married each year before they reach their 18th birthdays.

In the coming decade, approximately 14.2 million girls will be married each year before they reach their 18th birthdays.

The majority of those girls will drop out of school and miss out on the educational and economic opportunities they need to build prosperous lives for themselves, their families and their communities.

Let us be clear: We will not enable girls to unlock their potential unless we end child marriage, a practice that robs them of their right to an education and harms their employment prospects.

Expected to marry – not to study

Kidan from Ethiopia had been eagerly awaiting the day when she would be able to complete her education and make her lifelong dream of becoming a doctor come true. But she had already been promised in marriage in exchange for cattle.

A family with few resources like Kidan’s rarely has the means to offer schooling as an alternative to marriage for their daughters. And because girls like Kidan are rarely valued for their ability to earn an income, if there is any money for school fees, books or uniforms, it will most likely go to their brothers’ education.

Once married, it becomes extremely difficult for girls to pursue an education. Tigist, also from Ethiopia, married at the age of 15 and entertains no hope of ever returning to her studies: “I have a home and a child, so I can’t go back to school.”

Domestic responsibilities and childrearing leave little time for young wives to pursue an education, something they’re often urged not to do. Girls are expected to marry – not study.

Pulled out of school at a crucial age, child brides are deprived of the chance to succeed. They see their prospects for employment and financial autonomy curtailed for the rest of their lives.

Girls who marry young are more likely to be poor and remain poor.

Findings repeatedly show that early marriage has wide-reaching consequences for the economic wellbeing of girls’ families and their communities. In fact, countries with low GDPs tend to have a higher prevalence of child marriage. Girls who marry young are more likely to be poor and remain poor.

When 14 years old Loveness from Malawi realised her pregnancy would effectively keep her from attending school, she was heartbroken: “What I think of my future is that without an education I won’t have any future at all. My life will always be filled with struggle.” Now with a baby and three siblings to look after, Loveness struggles every day to make ends meet. She cannot afford the luxury of going back to school to learn new skills that could increase her income and help lift her family out of poverty.

On the other hand, expanding girls’ access to safe, quality schooling and employment holds amazing potential for reducing poverty and boosting economic growth. Meet Anita from India. The first girl to go to college in her village, Anita now owns her own business, provides substantial financial support to her family, and has inspired many girls in her community to follow in her footsteps.

When women and girls are educated, they work more productively and spend more money on food, housing, education and income-generating activities. They contribute to building more prosperous futures for their communities and themselves.

Educational and economic alternatives

If child marriage impedes girls’ education, conversely keeping girls in school is critical to increasing the age of marriage. Girls who complete secondary education are six times more likely to avoid being married as children than girls who drop out.

Offering a safe, girl-friendly learning environment that protects girls from child marriage is a key part of this effort. The Educate Girls non-governmental organisation (NGO), for example, runs programmes in Rajasthan, India to improve school infrastructure and address girls’ concerns for safety in mixed spaces. The threat of sexual violence in shared bathrooms often puts a strain on girls’ education and prompts parents to pull them out of school. The project equipped schools with sex-segregated bathrooms and structures to provide drinking water, leading to clear progress in girls’ attendance rates and learning outcomes.

Offering a safe, girl-friendly learning environment protects girls from child marriage.

Another programme of note is the Berhane Hewan project. Launched by the Population Council NGO in northern Ethiopia, it successfully increased girls’ attendance rates and delayed marriage by offering a sheep or a goat to parents who promised not to marry off their daughters. A key part of the project’s success was reaching out to community leaders about the importance and value of educating and empowering girls.

At the heart of why many girls are not supported in finishing their educations is that girls are simply not valued in the same way as boys. That is why some organisations are working to raise the visibility of socially valued roles for women beyond wife and mother. The Girls Empowerment Network (GENET) in Malawi, for instance, develops girls’ leadership programmes with the aim of giving young girls positive role models that inspire them to pursue higher education, employment and economic independence.

Other organisations work with child brides and survivors of child marriage to expand their educational and professional prospects. In Afghanistan, Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan (HAWCA) offers shelter for women and girls who are victims of child marriage and teaches them how to use sewing machines for embroidery so they can become self-sufficient.

Global movement to end child marriage

These are only a few examples of the types of grassroots projects implemented by organisations that form part of Girls Not Brides. Girls Not Brides is a global partnership of more than 250 non-governmental organisations committed to ending child marriage. Based in more than 50 countries, many Girls Not Brides members are working to address the factors that prevent girls’ attendance at school and hinder their access to economic opportunities.

But these projects only reach a small proportion of girls affected by child marriage: to achieve long-term change, we need to ensure that large-scale structural efforts aimed at other goals, such as health and poverty reduction as well as education, are making the connection to preventing child marriage. Governments should develop and implement education strategies that address the needs of all girls, including adolescent girls, girls at risk of child marriage and married girls, and guarantee the necessary funds are allocated to ensure their implementation.

We know that child marriage is holding back progress in girls’ education and we welcome the education community’s growing interest in tackling this issue. We also know that child marriage is a cross-cutting issue that affects a wide range of development and human rights outcomes: the continuing persistence of the practice hinders our efforts to end gender inequality, poverty, hunger, HIV/AIDS, and maternal and new-born deaths.

Each of us has a responsibility to act to prevent a practice that robs so many girls of their childhood.

That is why we are encouraging education to cooperate with ministries across their governments, including ministries of health, finance, justice and social affairs, to make sure that ending child marriage is integrated across all their social programming.

Ending child marriage will require collaboration among all sectors of society, including governments, donors, civil society and international organisations. We are also encouraging governments to join forces with the civil society organisations working with the girls affected and in some of the most marginalised communities to gain an understanding of some of their successful interventions and how to scale these up across regions and countries.

These efforts will need financial support from donor governments and international institutions too. After all, each of us has a responsibility to act to prevent a practice that robs so many girls of their childhood.

Girls Not Brides and its members came together in the belief that we can be more effective by working together than we can by working alone. Pooling our efforts, resources, energies and experiences will maximise our collective impact, helping to end child marriage whilst bringing about positive change in other major development goals.

When girls are finally able to choose if, when and whom they marry, we will start seeing not only a more just, but also a more prosperous world.

This article was originally published in Digital Development Debates magazine