Mabel van Oranje (left), chair of the board of international NGO Girls Not Brides, with Archbishop Desmond Tutu visit a girls’ empowerment program to prevent child marriage in Zambia. Photo by: Aly Ramji / World Economic Forum / CC BY-NC-SA

When it comes to the Sustainable Development Goals, many priorities can lay claim to being a central link to the solution for wider set of issues. With reliable and affordable energy, for example, you can power the human and physical capital that is needed to tackle all other goals. And advances in information and communication technology can provide the systems and innovations to meet all 17 targets and 169 indicators. A similar case can be made for inclusive and equitable education.

Though formally indoctrinated in SDG 4 — “ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning” — education is not a standalone goal. The returns on expanded education are employment and economic growth — SDG 8. And the skills of an educated population can improve industry, innovation and infrastructure — SDG 9.

But the task of getting there is enormous. Roughly 124 million children of primary and secondary school age are not enrolled in school, according to the Global Partnership for Education. Many families choose to keep their children at home to contribute labor, and current crises have prohibited school attendance for millions.

The U.N. refugee agency estimates that 60 million people are currently displaced from their homes as a result of war and conflict. Only 1 in every 2 refugee children goes to primary school, while just 1 in 4 enrolls in secondary school.

The buzz from the 2015 World Innovation Summit for Education

Inclusive and equitable education is formally indoctrinated in Sustainable Development Goal 4. But the buzz from WISE 2015 focused on education as a central link to a number of other — if not all — SDGs. Devex Impact reporter Naki Mendoza shares highlights from the summit in this video recap.

But a more systemic problem that contributes to that figure is the exclusion of women and girls from formal education. An estimated 62 million girls around the world are not in school. In many cases the issue is tied to the practice of child marriage in developing countries. Girls often marry at a young age and become mothers shortly after. Once wed, they are essentially locked out from the institutional opportunities of formal education.

The issue of promoting education by ending child marriage was a central theme of the recent World Innovation Summit for Education. The longer you keep a girl in school the less likely she is to be married young, participants argued. Doing so will address not just educational enrollment, but social pitfalls in gender equality, domestic violence and infectious diseases.

Governments, civil society groups and grassroots movements among communities themselves have significant roles to play. But the issue has also made inroads with private businesses looking to have a social impact. This year the UBS Optimus Foundation established by the Swiss banking giant became the principal investor in the world’s first development impact bond. The investment funds Educate Girls, an NGO based in Mumbai, India, whose programs are specifically designed to reduce child marriage among girls by boosting female enrollment in primary and secondary schools.

At WISE 2015 Devex interviewed Mabel van Oranje — chair of the board of international NGO Girls Not Brides — to discuss the global movement around ending child marriage, its impact on inclusive education and the role that the private sector can play.

Here are some highlights from that conversation:

Every development issue is now seen through the lens of the Sustainable Development Goals. How have they provided new momentum to the issue of child marriage?

I find it very encouraging that the SDGs acknowledge the complexity of eradicating poverty and that issues that happen to be very difficult or sensitive can no longer be ignored if we want to create a more prosperous world.

If you look at the issue of child marriage, for far too long it was completely ignored. Fifteen million girls get married every year. And one in every three girls in the developing world is married before the age of 18. It’s not just the numbers that are absolutely shocking, but the impact that it has on development is enormous. For example, how can you get every girl into school if girls are pulled out of school or never even allowed to go because they are getting married? How can you ever end maternal mortality if child brides become pregnant at a very early age? We know that maternal deaths are five times higher for women who have their first child before the age of 18 than those who have babies in their early 20s. And it’s not as if this is restricted to one part of the world. This is all over the world — across countries, cultures and religions.

I am delighted that target 5.3 of the SDGs specifies ending harmful practices such as child marriages. The world is finally acknowledging that very difficult issues have to be tackled as well.

I think that one of the reasons why the world was reluctant to tackle child marriage is because it’s linked to tradition. It continues because families do it generation after generation. Parents don’t think if it’s good or bad — they just do it. Child marriage is also linked to poverty. Parents have one less mouth to feed when their daughter goes to live with her husband’s family. Or in terms of dowries: In India parents told me that they want to get rid of their girls as quickly as possible in order to pay a lower dowry price. Child marriage is also related to sensitive issues like sexual violence and the security of girls. Ultimately it’s all related to the inequality of men and women.

How do you reconcile the advocacy to end the practice of child marriage and its linkages to cultural traditions and practices?

I don’t think you can end child marriage just because a selective group of people says that it’s unacceptable. But with the increased global attention to child marriage we are seeing that governments of high prevalence countries are starting to develop national policies to end child marriage. These governments realize that this is ultimately harmful, not only for the girls but also for society as a whole. We know that if three percent more girls would finish secondary school, the economic growth of a country would rise by one percent. So keeping girls in school and out of child marriage makes economic sense, there’s no doubt about it.

You also see more and more happening at the grassroots level. This summer I was in Senegal to visit the work of Tostan, one of the member organizations of Girls Not Brides. I learned how trusted interlocutors are engaging with communities to talk about the harmful consequences of child marriage and the benefits of respecting the rights of girls and women. After long deliberations, village after village collectively and voluntarily decided to abolish the practice. The result is that about 8,000 villages decided to end child marriage. So change can definitely happen. The question now is how do we scale that up and replicate it in other places?

What are the most measurable concrete actions that can be taken to address the issue?

We realize that U.N. resolutions and an SDG target are all very useful in drawing attention to child marriage. At Girls Not Brides, we also realize that change ultimately happens in the lives of the girls, their families and their communities. While NGOs collaborating is not necessarily a new thing, the way we’re trying to do it is really exciting. Girls Not Brides brings together every civil society organization in the world that wants to end child marriage. We’ve grown in four years to more than 500 groups from more than 75 countries. Less than 10 percent are international NGOs, so this is truly a global movement.

We work together to raise awareness, to mobilize more political will and financial support and to learn from each other. Girls Not Brides members working in the rural communities where child marriage is most prevalent see which interventions work and which don’t. Because ending child marriage is not as easy as some other development interventions, we decided to develop a theory of change. We’ve identified four essential elements that must be in place in order to end child marriage: empowerment of girls; community sensitization and dialogue with parents; provision of services — alternative schooling and access to knowledge of sexual and reproductive health; and implementing laws and policies.

Many Girls Not Brides members are doing projects in these four areas, discovering which interventions have the biggest impact and the best way to mix them. We need to figure out what will get us to the point of social norm change. Right now it’s considered a normal and honorable thing to marry your daughter before the age of 18. We need to get to that tipping point where people decide this is no longer normal or acceptable.

What is the role of the private sector in tackling this issue?

I hope that the private sector takes an interest. But I’m not sure that it will. I do think that the private sector has a role to play in tackling the SDGs. But you often see that companies tend to focus on development challenges that either directly affect their employees or the markets in which they operate. Unfortunately, child brides normally don’t become their employees and because they often get stuck in poverty, these girls are often not their clients. I wish I could change that.

Providing access to education and schooling is one possible inroad. It’s encouraging to see education initiatives move away from a very traditional method of schooling and into much more long-distance learning. But my fear is that a lot of those services are not easily accessible to the ones most in need in rural communities.

Aside from the raw number of child marriages, what other indicators are you using to measure success?

There’s a lot of talk about how we are going to measure all 169 indicators of the SDGs. Luckily, it is very easy to measure progress. The indicator is the number of girls between the ages of 20-24 that were married before 18. But aside from the formal indicator, there will be a whole lot of “anecdata” that we can gather to measure progress. For example, how many governments are adopting comprehensive policies? How many communities decide collectively to end the practice? How much attention is the issue getting in mainstream media? Another is court cases. In Zimbabwe, a few child brides are taking the authorities to court for having condoned their marriages. Ultimately, success for me will be that by the end of 2030 we have a world where child marriage is a very rare practice.

Is that a viable target in the next 15 years?

Yes. Because I’m convinced that if we can manage to keep this generation of girls out of child marriage, they will see to it that their daughters won’t get married before the age of 18. Wherever I travel in the world, I always ask girls what they want for their daughters. And the answers are pretty much the same — “I want my children, including my daughters, to go to school. And I want my daughters to be able to choose who they want to marry and when they want to marry.”

It won’t be easy to get there. This really has to be a bottom up effort. Both civil society and governments play a crucial role. We can’t do it if governments are not engaged. But it is not sufficient if only one ministry works on it. Nepal is a good example: They are developing a national strategy and are making sure that every relevant ministry — judiciary, education, health, women’s affairs, family, youth — is engaged. They are also involving civil society in the strategy design and implementation. This kind of comprehensive programming is not easy and requires extra time. But once you have a plan like that in place, the chances of success are much bigger. We hope that if a number of countries do truly comprehensive planning, it will become a model and there will be peer pressure on other governments to do the same.

The beauty of the SDGs is that they provide a fixed timetable for measurable outcomes, allowing businesses and governments to quantify the investments needed to achieve a certain objective. Is it possible to quantify the investments needed to achieve the goal of ending child marriage?

Changing a social norm is not necessarily super expensive, but what is needed is something that is much more scarce than money — and that is patience. Donors should realize that you can’t change this in one or two budget cycles. At the same time, I think that addressing child marriage is a smart investment of time, resources and policies. If you make progress on child marriage you’ll make progress on a host of other things — education, domestic violence, maternal mortality, infant mortality and HIV rates.

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About the author

  • Naki B. Mendoza

    Naki is a former reporter, he covered the intersection of business and international development. Prior to Devex he was a Latin America reporter for Energy Intelligence covering corporate investments and political risks in the region’s energy sector. His previous assignments abroad have posted him throughout Europe, South America, and Australia.