UK parliamentarians hear testimony on child marriage; Girls Not Brides reflects

“I had no-one to talk to, I thought I was alone,” recounted a survivor of child marriage, who at just 16 years old was taken from the UK to Bangladesh to marry a man she’d never met.

This brave young lady shared her story of escaping a child marriage with UK members of parliament represented in the All-Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Population, Development and Reproductive Health. The group held a hearing on child marriage at the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, inviting NGOs, academics, UN agencies, government officials and parliamentarians, as well as survivors, to give testimony on child marriage and its impact.

A welcome discussion

The hearing was the first time that the UK parliament had turned its attention to child marriage, an issue that affects 10 million girls around the world every year. “Ten years ago, this would not have happened,” reflects Annabel Erulkar, Population Council’s Country Director in Ethiopia. “It is satisfying to see the high level attention being given to this issue.”

The aim of the hearing was to explore the impact of child marriage, possible solutions and recommendations for action to prevent similar cases in the UK and abroad. While All-Party Parliamentary Groups are informal, cross-party interest groups, their hearings provide a good opportunity for civil society to share their experiences with influential parliamentarians.

Naana Otoo-Oyortey, Executive Director of FORWARD, explained that a similar hearing was held on Female Genital Mutilation: “It is an opening for dialogue and discussion, and an opportunity for real policy change in the UK and beyond.”

Travelling from Bihar in India to give evidence to the committee, Dr Rema Nanda of Pathfinder India said that the hearing was vital not only in bringing the issue of child marriage into focus, but for maintaining focus on the issue for the long-term.

Child marriage: a public health issue, a child protection issue, and a human rights violation

Child marriage was defined by participants at the hearing as a public health issue, a child protection issue, and a human rights violation: “Girls who marry young suffer multiple rights violations and are at much greater risk of domestic violence,” highlighted Gauri Van Gulik from Human Rights Watch. “Child marriage violates girls’ rights to consensual marriage, to health, to education and the right to live free from violence.” Gauri cited the case of a 12 year-old Yemeni girl, married to a much older man, who died 3 days after her wedding. She had been subjected to marital rape.

Evidence submitted demonstrated the issue of child marriage is complex and affects girls in many ways. The practice has harmful consequences for their health, sees them drop out of school, subjected to domestic violence and leaves them less able to pursue the economic opportunities that can lift them and her family out of poverty.

Action to end child marriage is possible: we need innovation

Those who gave evidence to the hearing were keen to emphasise, however, that action to end child marriage and support vulnerable girls is possible.

Girls Not Brides members, academics and others, pointed to innovative programmes to address the practice. The Population Council highlighted a programme in Ethiopia that integrates health messages related to early marriage into training for priests in religious communities. Economic incentives and youth-led initiatives, were also discussed as important approaches to ending child marriage.

“We need to ensure that girls have the opportunity to make their own decisions and to participate in the very programmes in place to support them,” reflects Jamela Saleh Al-Raiby, Deputy Minister of Public Health and Population in Yemen and White Ribbon Alliance partner, who submitted written evidence to the hearing. She wrote: “My dream is that every Yemeni girl has the chance to be educated and can live a safe life, not threatened by a forced marriage when she is only a child.”

Rema Nanda from Pathfinder emphasised that programmes should be designed for the long-term and should work to empower unmarried girls and boys: “The PRACHAR project provides conclusive evidence that when reached with messages about their sexual and reproductive health rights, girls and boys do make bold decisions about delaying marriage and childbirth.” She added: “Greater investment in youth is absolutely necessary if we are to bring change in one generation.”

Jacqui Hunt from Equality Now added that it is important to ensure that we have systems in place to protect girls when they run away from a child marriage: “We need to send strong signals on gender equality and the rule of law in order to progress on this issue,” she told Girls Not Brides.

Will the APPG’s report collect dust or prompt UK action?

The APPG heard of solutions to ending child marriage from Amhara in Ethiopia, to Bihar in India, to Leeds in the UK. Parliamentarians could be left with little doubt that child marriage is a problem on a global scale.

That this was the first time that UK parliamentarians considered child marriage is indicative that while it has been a long-ignored issue, it is time for that to change. Reflecting on the experience of the hearing, one child marriage survivor said that it was a relief that at last, attention is being paid. Leigh Daynes from Plan UK called for more joined up thinking on child marriage from government and added that NGOs might also need to think about whether they are effectively working together.

The key question moving forward is whether the APPG’s report following the hearing will gather dust or will it prompt meaningful action on child marriage by the UK government and others?

We have an opportunity to think about how to improve support and coordination between NGOs and government so that the kinds of innovative programmes spoken about at the hearing can be implemented on a greater scale. We know what it takes to end child marriage, but if we’re to make an impact on the lives of millions of girls vulnerable to child marriage, we need to work together to make that happen.

Read testimony to the hearing from Dr Jamela Saleh Al-Raiby, a well-known pediatrician and the Deputy Minister of Public Health and Population in Yemen. Dr Al-Raiby is an outspoken advocate for legal issues that focus on child marriage and submitted testimony to the UK parliamentary hearings on child marriage.

Read the testimony submitted to the hearing by Samjhana Phuyal, an active member of the White Ribbon Alliance in Nepal and Programme Officer for Rural Women Development and Unity Centre. Samjhana’s grandmother was married at just seven years old, and as Samjhana says, ‘was destined to suffer many hardships’.