Bayush from Ethiopia was married when she was 3 years old, but a project funded by the United Kingdom Department for International Development that runs community discussions about early marriage gave her the support she needed to go to school. Photo by: Jessica Lea / DFID / CC BY

BANGKOK — A new initiative wants to galvanize the United States wedding industry to help stop forced marriage for girls around the world. VOW, launched this week, will allow brides, grooms, and the businesses that cater to them to donate to the fight against child marriage. Contributions will go to underfunded grassroots organizations in six countries with a high prevalence of girls married before the age of 18.

VOW has secured commitments from influential companies, such as The Knot and Crate and Barrel, to donate a portion of profits from products and wedding registries to the new Girls First Fund, which will award grants to local organizations standing up for girls’ rights and against child marriage. Couples can also select VOW as their preferred charity when they create their wedding registry with a brand partner.

The idea to use funds around a wedding to stop a marriage elsewhere may seem counterintuitive, but it was first inspired by her own experience at a wedding, said Mabel van Oranje, chair of the board of international NGO Girls Not Brides, a global partnership of more than 1,000 civil society organizations committed to ending child marriage.

The bride and groom provided their guests the option of gifting an item from their registry — or making a direct contribution to Girls Not Brides.

“I remember seeing that and thinking ‘that's genius,’ but Girls Not Brides doesn't need the funding as badly as some of these local organizations need it.”

Each year, 12 million girls are married before they reach the age of 18 — some at just 8 or 9 years old, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund. Young brides are at much greater risk of domestic violence, ill health, poverty, and dropping out of school. But child marriage and the drivers behind are different in Nepal than they are in Niger, for example, and it’s vital that people working in the communities are familiar with the local constraints and decision-makers, van Oranje said.

“And yet pretty much none of the funding that is going to ending child marriage now reaches grassroots organizations that work to end child marriage,” she said. “What we want to do is then identify these very impressive individuals and local organizations that work in these communities to end child marriage, but empower them to do what they think needs to be done.”

Girls Not Brides also wants to be able to shepherd donors who come to them and ask how best to support community-based organizations. Now, the $27 million Girls First Fund, which counts Children’s Investment Fund Foundation and Ford Foundation among its founding partners, will support local organizations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Dominican Republic, India, Nepal, Niger, and Uganda.

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The work will likely look different in each country. Some groups might focus on facilitating dialogues with local religious leaders and other authorities in the community to raise the legal age of marriage. Others will provide stipends or modes of transportation, such as bicycles, to help keep girls in school, or encourage young women to regularly meet and talk about their lives and goals, so they know how to support one another.

Importantly, contributions to the fund are new and are not being pulled from other pots such as girls’ education or sexual and reproductive health, Girls Not Brides Executive Director Lakshmi Sundaram told Devex.

Request for proposals will be issued in the coming weeks, but Girls Not Brides wants to be careful to cater to community-based organizations who often find it difficult to access funding from the international sphere.

There will be a learning component attached to the grants, and Girls Not Brides will spend the first year working with the grantees to help reduce the barriers that often deter local organizations from accessing this type of funding. To begin with, the Girls First Fund is working to make it possible for grassroots groups to apply for grants using the cross-platform messaging service Whatsapp, a common and free form of international communication for those with smartphones.

In the meantime, five wedding dress designers have promised to put a portion of the profits of specific dresses into the VOW initiative, and Crate and Barrel will launch a line of VOW-specific products next year. Each time an eligible retail gift is purchased from a couple's wedding registry hosted on popular wedding planning website The Knot, the company will donate a portion of the cost of that gift to VOW in the couple's name.

But major brands aren’t the only ones van Oranje wants to see join this movement: “What we hope is that every local bakery will feel excited about this initiative and will want to be part of it. And we'll put a certain proportion of the profits that they make off some of their wedding cake sales into VOW and really try and build this sense of global solidarity.”

Players in the giant U.S. wedding industry are the first to come on board, but the goal is to eventually tap into established wedding markets in Europe as well, she said.

“Americans spend tens of billions each year saying, ‘I do,’ and VOW is about investing part of those funds in supporting girls to say, ‘I don’t,’” van Oranje said.

About the author

  • Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers has worked as an Associate Editor and Southeast Asia Correspondent for Devex, with a particular focus on gender. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has reported from more than 20 countries.