Scaling Up the “Whole Girl” Approach to End Child Marriage

A panel of experts gathered at the UN Tuesday afternoon to discuss the most effective programs to end child marriage and the work ahead for advocates and governments committed to ending the practice, which affects an estimated 15 million girls under the age of 18 worldwide every year.

Panelists noted that minimum age of marriage laws and cash payments to parents to keep their daughters in school can help prevent child marriage, but will not work as stand alone interventions.  Moreover, measures must address the root cause of the problem: gender inequality.

“The devaluation of girls by families, by schools, and by societies is the fundamental root cause of [child marriage],” said IWHC President Françoise Girard, who noted that a “whole girl” approach must be taken to end the practice. “That means there is not a single silver bullet that will address child marriage. The responses and policies have to be holistic,” she said. “We must address the girl in all of her dimensions and multiple aspects of her life.” This approach includes investing in girls’ education and their sexual and reproductive health, building their economic and life skills, and providing them with mentorship and leadership programs.

Girard noted that comprehensive sexuality education programs that challenge harmful gender norms and stereotypes, and teach boys and girls about sharing equal power in relationships, are an important tool in making child marriage an unacceptable practice. “These programs have shown—now we have evidence—that they actually improve teen pregnancy, HIV infection, and sexual violence rates in adolescent girls, and they help transform the school environment. So if we’re going to invest millions of dollars in secondary education, let’s not miss the boat, let’s make sure the schools are girl-friendly and girl-centered.”

Geeta Rao Gupta, Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF, framed the problem of child marriage with a stark, shocking figure. “Seven-hundred million women alive today were married as children,” she said. “The enormity of that number puts everything in perspective in terms of the injustice done, and the opportunities lost. The maternal deaths that occur during adolescence, the years of schooling lost, the economic opportunities unrealized, and perhaps more than anything else, the childhoods denied.”

That figure supports the dire need for a target on ending child, early, and forced marriage in the Sustainable Development Goals, which the UN General Assembly will finalize in September. “Our advocacy efforts stand on solid ground because the data and evidence on the scope of child marriage and the damage it causes are incontrovertible,” Gupta said. “It is essential that the systems and programs that we put in place are able to directly reach and engage girls and their families. If our efforts don’t reach the girls, then all this hard work and advocacy has no payoff. We must not forget that the measure of our progress through a numerical indicator represents the lives of real girls, real families, and real communities.”

Hope, a 15-year-old advocate from Kenya, said in the closing remarks: “I believe the change we want to see cannot be achieved if the powerful force of change is forgotten behind, and that is the girl child.”

A video of the panel discussion is available on UN Web TV. IWHC co-sponsored the event with the governments of Canada, Peru, Zambia and Ethiopia, along with the United Nations Population Fund, UNICEF, American Jewish World Service, CARE International, Girls Not Brides, and Plan International.

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