Last year, we saw a major milestone reached in the campaign to end child marriage. The first global target to eliminate child, early and forced marriage was adopted as part of the Sustainable Development Goals. Now that we have a target down on paper, what is being done to make it a reality? While the efforts of international agencies and national governments are paramount to ending child marriage, so too is the work happening day in day out at the community level.
On the first anniversary of the SDGs being adopted, now is a good time to reflect on the successes and challenges organizations face when working to end child marriage. Based on their experiences working at the community level, here are eight insights they have shared with us.
1. Holistic approaches can transform the lives of girls.
Ending child marriage will not happen if it’s seen only as an issue of poverty, or a cultural issue, or a practice tied to one specific religion or context. The causes of child marriage are complex and interlinked, and many of our members have found that a good approach to address child marriage is to tackle several issues, which the community themselves have identified, together at the same time.
A good example of this is a project being run by Institute Health Management Pachod in India. The project focuses on married and unmarried girls, and it includes young men, boys and local communities in conversations around the harmful consequences of child marriage such as poor educational attainment and the health risks faced by young girls and mothers. By working in an integrated way, the project has seen the proportion of girls getting married before 18 years of age reduced from 80.7 percent to 61.8 percent after 18 months.
2. Knowledge is power.
Gaining a deep understanding of the girls and communities you work with is critical to the success of any project. This means investing in research. In many countries where child marriage frequently happens, there is very little or no reliable information on how many girls live in a community, how many attend school, how many are disabled, are married, and have children, among other key data points.
The Population Council’s Abriendo Oportunidades program in Guatemala works to understand local demographics so they can create solid baselines that helps them track progress and see what works and what does not. This ensures they have information about the girls they are working with so they have an accurate picture of the girls’ needs. This has set the program up for success and helped them reach the most vulnerable.
3. Culture is key.
Content that is culturally appropriate and working through local staff who speak the local language is critical in addressing child marriage. Staff who both live and work in local contexts know their communities and know how far and how fast to push for change. The majority of our members hire staff locally because, as Women for Afghan Women say, “They know the needs and desires of their community and are ultimately instrumental in building trust, gaining community buy-in and driving change.”
4. Secure support from local community leaders from the start.
Having local leaders buy into the project and become champions for girls in their own communities is key to the sustainability of the project and change for girls. Our members emphasize the importance of contacting local community leaders to discuss how they are hoping to end child marriage and why it is beneficial for girls, their families and communities. This first contact is an important opportunity to explain why you want to work in the community and can encourage community leaders to get them on board.
When community leaders champion these issues the community becomes mobilized. Community leaders have the potential to transform the lives of individuals. And, because these leaders are so knowledgeable about their communities, they must be part of any community mapping exercises.
5. Laws are a good starting point, but change cannot end there.
Immediately implementing a law that sanctions against a cultural and social norm or practice such as child marriage can lead to social tension and unrest. It can also push a community to resist other projects aimed at tackling child marriage. In some areas it has even pushed child marriage further underground. Working slowly with communities over time to introduce new ideas and information builds trust, results in buy-in, and can lead to positive, sustainable change.
HAQ have been working to build the capacity of government officials so they are equipped to deal with child marriage cases while simultaneously mobilizing girls, boys, community leaders and school teachers to be aware of the warning signs and stop the practice.
6. Men and boys are part of the solution.
Engaging and educating men and boys to understand that women’s rights are human rights is an important part of changing attitudes and behaviors. It is important to acknowledge the role men and boys play in the practice of child marriage, either through their role as a father, brother, uncle, elder, husband-to-be, or as a traditional or religious leader. Many of our members do this through outreach and awareness training in communities and schools, or targeted programs aimed at men and boys.
Population Foundation India has developed a multimedia project called “Main Kuch Bhi Sakti Hoon — I, a woman, can achieve anything” — an entertainment education program to promote gender equality, empowerment and health seeking behavior by creating a soap opera, radio show and discussion groups that appeal to the whole community, not just women and girls.
7. Women are agents of change.
Many of Girls Not Brides members train local women as part of their projects so they are confident in speaking out and are part of the decision making process in their community and the project. These women can then act as mentors to young girls, as well as being positive role models within communities. This is a critical part of social change.
In Guatemala, the young mentors who run the sessions on the Abriendo Oportunidades program are also learning new skills and report feeling more confident and better equipped to communicate about these issues and speak out against them.
Aura Freedom International’s Female Friendly Spaces in post-earthquake Nepal (in partnership with Apeiron) has also been working to empower women and girls and make them agents of change by providing them with space to report violence, seek services, and attend educational workshops so they can obtain legal documentation such as birth certificates, claim ownership of their land and open bank accounts.
8. Document and share learnings.
While it is often not seen as a priority, making the time to document and share learnings about what works and what doesn't in different country contexts is critical in helping us all improve the quality and impact of programs aimed at ending child marriage.
As Dr. Ashok Dyalchand of Institute Health Management Pachod India explains, it is important to “identify, analyze and document the innovations and effective processes of your program in addition to measuring impact as that is what will convince policymakers and facilitate evidence-based policy formulation.” Without learning from each other and being open to sharing successes and challenges, we risk repeating ineffective programs despite having good intentions.
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