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High stakes for young lives: Examining strategies to stop child marriage

Photo credit: Graham Crouch

We know the numbers: Each year, more than 14 million girls around the world will be married before they reach their eighteenth birthday. Broken down, that’s 38,461 girls a day, 27 every minute, or about one girl every two seconds, according to data from Plan UK.

But while we know that child marriage is a global phenomenon that transcends geographical boundaries, religion, and faith, one that stymies the health, educational attainment, and the economic potential of the girl child, a strong idea of what works and what does not work in combatting this practice remains elusive.

What is needed to end child marriage?

Last week the Council on Foreign Relations published a paper that aims to answer this question. Titled “High Stakes for Young Lives: Examining Strategies to Stop Child Marriage,” the paper reviews the challenges of addressing this issue of child marriage.

Highlighting strategies around the world designed to curb the practice, the paper offers recommendations on what sorts of interventions policy makers and civil society leaders could use in addressing the practice—and what additional information is needed in the fight to stop it.

Despite domestic laws and international accords banning child marriage, the tradition persists in communities where laws go unheeded and unenforced. Even where prevention and elimination programs  are providing girls with alternative options to marriage—whether by keeping girls in school, providing them with cash transfers, and/or regulating birth and marriage registrations—cultural norms keep these traditions entrenched in local communities around the world.

As such, we argue in the paper, “no one option provides an answer to the challenge of child marriage. Instead, a mix of legal frameworks, education policies, enforcement standards, attitude shifts, and economic incentives is required in order to ensure that the practice is eradicated in all communities, including those where it is a deep-rooted cultural practice.”

Proof of change

Berhane Hewan programme in Ethiopia

While more research on the social, economic, and cultural factors that contribute to child marriage must be conducted to reduce its prevalence, some efforts point to progress in curbing the practice. For example, the Berhane Hewan program in Ethiopia—a country with one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world—provides girls with school materials and livelihood skills that help them stay in school, extend their education, and in doing so, eventually increase their household income.

The « Safe Age of Marriage » project in Yemen

Another program in Yemen, called the “Safe Age of Marriage” project, has facilitated a shift in community perceptions around child marriage by training volunteers to conduct educational outreach activities. The program’s efforts have reached nearly 29,000 people and program data shows that it has helped to reduce the rate of child marriage in the targeted communities.

Similar initiatives engaging with religious leaders, along with men and boys, the gatekeepers for women in many societies, can allow for changes in cultural norms that lead to delayed age of marriage and improved educational and economic opportunities for girls and women.

On the national level, mandating birth and marriage registration can allow the government to give children an official identity, track if children are getting married, and better enforce age of marriage laws, as evidenced in Bangladesh.

The Apni Beti, Apna Dhan (ABAD) programme in India

One of the most followed child marriage prevention programs, Apni Beti, Apna Dhan (ABAD), employed conditional cash transfers as a way of encouraging families in the Indian state of Haryana to keep their daughters unwed until age eighteen.

Early evidence from a first round of evaluations conducted by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) show that beneficiaries of the ABAD program were more likely to be in school at age eighteen than non-beneficiaries, a positive indicator given that more years of schooling for a girl often leads to a delayed age of marriage, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

While the impact of ABAD on age of marriage will not be seen until the second set of evaluations from ICRW next year, if the program proves effective, it will inform the conversation exploring whether cash transfers can be scaled in other locations to help reshape community perceptions surrounding the value of girls.

Things we can do, as an international community, to end child marriage

Challenges may seem daunting given that child marriage rates, while declining over the past thirty years, have remained stubbornly high. But there are steps that the United States, in concert with governments where the practice is happening, NGOs, the United Nations, and the private sector, can take to curb and, eventually, eliminate, child marriage globally, including:

  • Support efforts to address the root causes of child marriage, particularly poverty and education levels.
  • Include child marriage elimination and prevention priorities in diplomacy.
  • Break out data on gender-related programs to separate dollars devoted specifically to curbing child marriage.
  • Focus on innovations and the role they can play in curbing child marriage.
  • Better track dollars and conduct more in-depth evaluations of programs targeting child marriage.
  • Target funding for programs in countries with high prevalence rates by proportion and absolute numbers.

You can download a copy of the report at http://www.cfr.org/women/high-stakes-young-lives/p32764.