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Ending child marriage in South Asia: a regional action plan

Photo credit: Save the Children

With 42% of girls married before 18, South Asia is home to almost half of the world’s child brides.

Over the past few years, regional bodies have taken significant steps to end child marriage in South Asia. In 2014, the South Asia Initiative to End Violence Against Children (SAIEVAC) adopted the first Regional Action Plan to End Child Marriage in South Asia.

What is the Regional Action Plan? How can civil society in South Asia use it to mobilise their governments?

Ahead of the SAIEVAC high-level meeting in Sri Lanka this week, we sat down with Melissa Upreti of the Center for Reproductive Rights, a Girls Not Brides member, to find out how the regional body is addressing child marriage in South Asia- and how civil society can contribute.

What is SAIEVAC?

The South Asia Initiative to End Violence Against Children (SAIEVAC) is an inter-governmental regional body whose mandate is to ensure the protection of children’s rights in South Asia. It is one of six Apex Bodies of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

It is made up of government officials from the eight member states of the SAARC – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – and also includes representatives of civil society. 

How is SAIEVAC addressing child marriage?

Since 2011, SAIEVAC has made ending child marriage one of its five thematic priorities and taken important steps to promote a regional conversation among governments about how to end child marriage.

One of the most positive results of SAIEVAC’s efforts in the region is the development of the Regional Action Plan to End Child Marriage in South Asia. From 2012 to 2014, the SAIEVAC secretariat and the South Asian Coordinating Group on Action against Violence against Children developed a comprehensive plan of action to address child marriage in the region.

UN agencies and civil society organisations, including the Center for Reproductive Rights, Mamta Health Institute for Mother and Child, International Center for Research on Women, and Plan Asia Regional Office, supported the process and provided input at different stages.

The end result is a first-of-its-kind regional political commitment and action plan that could have a huge impact for girls in South Asia.

What is the Regional Action Plan to End Child Marriage in South Asia? Why is it important?

The Regional Action Plan is a commitment by governments in South Asia to end child marriage. It is important because it officially recognises child marriage as a human rights violation and acknowledges that it is a common concern for governments in the region. It takes a holistic approach to ending child marriage, with seven main areas of focus:

  1. Effectively enacting, enforcing and using national legal and policy instruments to increase the minimum age of marriage to 18 for both boys and girls;
  2. Ensuring access to quality education, especially secondary;
  3. Increasing the mobilisation of girls, boys, parents, and religious leaders, to change discriminatory gender norms;
  4. Increasing child marriage prevention by addressing its root causes and creating alternative social, economic and civic opportunities for girls;
  5. Collective evidence on the status of married girls and good programmes to address their needs;
  6. Enhancing advocacy to mobilise action and support for girls who are already married, providing options for sexual and reproductive health information and services and recourse from violence in the home, including annulling marriages; and
  7. Better monitoring, reporting, and evaluation of programmes to end child marriage in South Asia.

Who is responsible for implementing the Regional Action Plan?

Responsibility for implementing the Regional Action Plan comes down to governments with critical support from civil society and development partners. In all eight SAARC Member States, National Action Coordination Groups (NACGs) have been established to facilitate inter-agency cooperation around efforts to address violence against children and to implement the Regional Action Plan, although not all of them are fully functional yet.

The best way to find out who is currently involved in these national groups is to reach out to the SAIEVAC Regional Secretariat  in Nepal at info@saievac.org

How can civil society use the Regional Action Plan to call for change on child marriage?

The Regional Action Plan is a comprehensive document but will remain words on paper unless it is fully utilised. It is up to governments and civil society to mobilise and work together to make it a reality!

It’s critical for civil society in South Asia to spread the word. Many organisations, even government officials, are unaware of the Regional Action Plan. We need to tell them about it. Ask governments what their plans are for implementing it and hold them to account.

Civil society can also reach out to the SAIEVAC Regional Secretariat directly and find out what meetings are happening in their country in relation to the action plan to offer their expertise and insights.  Where participation is not possible, civil society can organise parallel events to promote broader discussion around key issues that the regional action plan aims to address.

National organisations can assess what aspects of the plan they can integrate into their work and, where possible, align their own efforts with goals and activities mentioned in the plan; there are many to choose from. Informing media and getting them on board will be key to amplifying the call for implementation.

With the 19th SAARC Summit happening in November this year, we have a chance to reinforce the commitments in the regional action plan by ensuring that the issue of child marriage is raised during the Summit.

You used the Regional Action to start a conversation around accountability which led to the adoption of the Kathmandu Call for Action. How did you make it happen? What was the impact?

After the Regional Action Plan was adopted, we felt that there needed to be a deeper conversation around legal accountability. In 2014, the Center for Reproductive Rights reached out to the SAIEVAC Regional Secretariat to organise a regional convening on how to use the law to end child marriage.

The event was hosted by the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare of Nepal, and highlighted how the lack of government accountability for child marriage contributed to human rights violations against young girls and women in the region.

The result was the “Kathmandu Call for Action to End Child Marriage in South Asia”, which outlines 12 concrete steps that governments need to take to strengthen laws and policies to address child marriage. The document was endorsed by more than 60 stakeholders, including advocates and government officials in South Asia, in November 2014.

The conference unpacked one critical element – the law – and highlighted specific ways in which it can be used to end child marriage. It is now being used by SAIEVAC as a complementary document to the Regional Action Plan. We are planning a second meeting over the summer to assess progress made since the Kathmandu Call for Action.

What will be the key challenges in implementing the Regional Action Plan? How can we overcome them?

A major challenge is lack of awareness of the Regional Action Plan across civil society and among key government officials and institutions. Awareness is slowly growing, but we must accelerate the pace.

The Center for Reproductive Rights has taken a proactive approach by identifying areas of overlap between the goals of the Regional Action Plan, international legal frameworks and our own institutional priorities and expertise. We have been working closely with SAIEVAC to promote greater understanding of how the law and legal strategies can be used to end child marriage and ensure stronger recognition of the links between child marriage, gender equality, violence against women and girls and sexual and reproductive rights.

Other groups can take up many of the critical issues and activities such as access to education, data collection, monitoring and evaluation and community mobilisation discussed in the Regional Action Plan. Its goals can also be linked to several Sustainable Development Goals, which can provide a basis for new partnerships.

Implementing the Regional Action Plan will eventually require resources; this is a gap that donors committed to ending child marriage can help fill.