KATHMANDU, Nepal — Last month, UNICEF released new data showing that the prevalence of child marriage is globally decreasing. Out of all regions, South Asia has witnessed the largest decline. In the past decade, the percentage of girls marrying before their 18th birthday in the region has dropped from nearly 50 percent to 30 percent.
While this decline of more than one-third has drawn praise, it also doesn’t fully represent the realties on the ground, according to groups that focus on child marriage. And some fear the rare positive news could lead to a drop in funding — and a backsliding in progress.
“It’s crucial that donors, governments, nongovernment organizations, and others don’t walk away from the news about the new data with the idea that their work is finished. If we don’t accelerate progress, 150 million girls will marry between now and 2030,” said Lakshmi Sundaram, executive director of Girls Not Brides, a United Kingdom-based umbrella organization of 900 local NGOs combating child marriage.
“What is clear from these new figures is that change is possible, and so we need to urge donors and others to step up their funding efforts rather than pull back,” Sundaram continued. Several NGOs in India and Nepal echoed Sundaram’s concern that a premature drop of funding might put their current operations at risk.
“What is clear from these new figures is that change is possible, and so we need to urge donors and others to step up their funding efforts rather than pull back.”— Lakshmi Sundaram, executive director of Girls Not Brides
Shyam Adhikari, program manager with Restless Development Nepal, an NGO working with the country’s youth, told Devex the decrease in child marriage in Nepal was primarily a result of a psychology of fear — rather than success at tackling root causes.
“In the community, there’s always the message that there are legal aspects if you do a child marriage: [That] you can be imprisoned or pay money to the government as a fine,” he said.
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Adhikari sees a risk of backsliding if funding dries up because the root causes of child marriage haven’t been addressed, including poverty, the dowry system, and a lack of job opportunities. “There’s a decreasing trend, but it might be fluctuating and it might go up again,” he said. That message was echoed by both Child Workers in Nepal and Her Turn, which urged donors not to reduce funding.
“The decline of funds is one of the dangers of this entire development,” said Sumnima Tuladhar, general secretary and co-founder of CWIN, Nepal's largest child rights organization. “Before the issue takes a conclusive end, the donors, actors, and agencies make hasty decisions and shift from one issue to another issue,” she added.
If donor funding does drop, groups should focus more on partnering with local governments — which are often the biggest funders of efforts to combat child marriage — urged Javier Aguilar, head of child protection at UNICEF India.
In India, resources for large-scale and expensive programs, which have largely contributed to the reduction in child marriage, mainly come from the government, he said, specifically referring to the increase in access to education — something that has also been a cornerstone of Nepal government efforts.
“When we compare the budget of UNICEF to that of the Indian government, it’s nothing,” he said. Instead of being worried about funding, Aguilar said actors should reinvent themselves and focus on leveraging the government's resources, supporting it with specialist expertise rather than running small-scale projects.
“If we go for small numbers, we won’t get anywhere. The only possibility for organizations is to leverage the resources of the government and the community to make a change,” he said.
Redefining child marriage
While UNICEF figures for India show that the chances of a girl getting married before her 18th birthday dropped from 47 percent to 27 percent over the past decade, Pragya Shah Karki, youth and adolescent development specialist at UNICEF Nepal said the country wasn’t seeing the same encouraging figures with rates of child marriage dropping from 51 percent in 2006 to about 40 percent in 2016.
While there has been a drop in traditional child marriages in Nepal, Tuladhar from CWIN said she didn’t want donors to just focus on numbers, but to recognize how child marriage is changing in today’s society. India and Nepal are seeing fewer child marriages overall, but they are also seeing a change in what those marriages look like, with minors increasingly eloping, rather than arranged by family members.
“These issues are not stagnant. They’re fluid and moving from a very, very traditional practice liked forced marriages to now child love marriages. So how are we addressing that now?” Tuladhar said.
Tuladhar said new forms of child marriage not only made children more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse such as child and bride trafficking but were also more dangerous than traditional practices that have been prevalent for decades. In traditional child marriages, the newlywed couple is still a part of their community, bound by social norms and parental oversight. By comparison, if couples elope, girls are more prone to commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking.
Shafiq Khan from Empower People, an NGO working to protect trafficked women and girls in India, told Devex he was witnessing an increase in bride trafficking and honor killings. He said that traffickers were taking advantage of the taboo around love marriages and were forging fake relationships with young girls in rural communities to lure them away. Frightened by such prospects, meanwhile, some parents may well be turning back to arranged child marriages.
“Just to prevent the trend of society towards love marriages, parents are marrying them off at the earliest age,” he said.
Engaging boys and young men
“If we do not invest in boys for them to come along with this change, then we’re not making any difference.”— Javier Aguilar, head of child protection at UNICEF India
While UNICEF data revealed large disparities between regions, one thing all experts agreed on was the urgent need to include boys and men in the response to combating all forms of child marriage — new and old.
According to Tuladhar, urgent attention needs to turn to promoting positive masculinity. “We need to equally work with boys and talk about masculinity and the proper construction of a masculinity in society,” she said.
Aguilar agreed, adding that the decision by many NGOs to focus almost exclusively on girls was a mistake. Positive masculinity, he argued, was key to ending child marriage.
“If we do not invest in boys for them to come along with this change, then we’re not making any difference in this country,” he said.