A few years ago, there would not have been a girl summit on child marriage. Many people dismissed the practice as tradition or too tricky a problem to overcome, so the issue never made it to the top of the agenda. While many still think these things, the world has come a long way in tackling the issue.
Recently, there have been many encouraging signs of progress: the African Union has launched a campaign to encourage governments across the continent to combat child marriage; last month, the UN’s human rights council held its first panel discussion on ending child, early and forced marriage in Geneva.
Child marriage happens for many reasons: poverty, fears about girls’ safety, a perceived lack of other options. But, ultimately, it happens to girls because they are girls. Approximately 14 million under-18s are married each year, and the overwhelming majority of them are girls. Child marriage is driven by social norms that accord girls little value.
The consequences of such unions are more devastating for girls. Soon after marriage, child brides are expected to prove their fertility – to become mothers even though they are still children. Their bodies are not ready to cope with pregnancy and childbirth. When under-15s give birth,they are five times more likely to die in labour than women in their early 20s.
In many cases, marriage becomes the only life that child brides know.Out of school and with few employment prospects, they are almost entirely dependent on their often much older husbands. Not only does this make girls more vulnerable to abusive relationships, it gives them few options to leave and provide for themselves and their children. As long as it exists, child marriage will stand in the way of gender equality.
Girls Not Brides was founded as a partnership of civil society organisations because of our shared belief in the crucial role of grassroots activism: ultimately, change will happen in the lives of girls and their immediate surroundings when families and communities reject child marriage and embrace roles for girls beyond wedlock.
But for parents to envision alternatives for their daughters, we also need change on a larger scale. We need policies that create an environment that enables girls and their families to say no to marriage. Girls must have access to quality schools and parents must feel confident that their daughters will be safe on their way to and at school. Once they have completed their education, girls need access to jobs that can earn them a living and help them support their families.
The Girl Summit is an opportunity for governments to make commitments that will enable this change to come about, from committing to establish and enforce laws that set 18 as a minimum age of marriage to pledging long-term funding and programmes that make a difference in the life of girls.
The conference provides a chance for government to strengthen partnerships with civil society, and women’s groups in particular. It takes a vibrant civil society to push for the legal frameworks, development programmes and changes in community attitudes that will help end child marriage – that role should be recognised.
We hope to see the UK and other governments move beyond declarations that child marriage is a problem and commit to investing in programmes that help married girls affected by the practice.
We would like discussions to acknowledge that child marriage is not an isolated issue and that this learning will find its way into policy. An effective response to such marriages will require a coordinated approach between justice, education, health and finance ministries.
Child marriage is happening to girls on an incredibly large scale, with devastating consequences for their future and the future of their communities. For that reason, the Girl Summit cannot be isolated from discussions to develop a new set of goals for international development.
Child marriage has hindered progress on six of the eight millennium development goals (MDGs) – poverty, education, gender equality,maternal and child health, and HIV-Aids. When the summit ends, we hope governments will take this information into discussions on what will replace the MDGs when they expire next year, and make sure that ending child marriage is a standalone target in the framework.
Ending child marriage will not happen overnight, and it will not be easy either. But together, we can do it within a generation.