Can We End Child Marriage Once and for All?

At the end of this month, government leaders from around the world will gather in New York to adopt the 2030 Agenda—the most comprehensive framework for global sustainable development ever designed. The Agenda includes a set of 17 goals and 169 targets—the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—that all countries will commit to working toward. 

Now that we have an ambitious global development agenda, what do we have to do in the next 15 years to make meaningful and positive change in the lives of people around the world?

One of the most important answers to that question is to “achieve gender equality,” which appears as Goal 5 of the Sustainable Development Goals, but is prevalent throughout the new agenda. For those of us who advocated to influence the new agenda, a key priority was to ensure that a target to end harmful practices—such as child, early, and forced marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM)—was included. These practices seek to control women’s and girls’ lives and sexuality and have been recognized more and more through UN resolutions and in national policies and programs as key barriers to gender equality.  About 15 million girls are married every year before they turn 18 and more than 125 million girls and women around the world have undergone genital mutilation, violating their human rights and negatively impacting the health, education, and agency.

In order to truly tackle these harmful practices, governments are going to have to face them head on and expand effective programs, working at the national and local levels. This will require a true understanding of the root causes and consequences of the practices, which means that data should be collected that examines the impact of the practices on the lives of women and girls of all ages. Currently, many measurement frameworks look at women and girls of “reproductive age,” meaning that most information collected is about 15-49 year olds. However, we know that millions of girls are married before age 15 every year, and that FGM most often occurs before age 15. Girls under the age of 15 therefore cannot be ignored in the indicators that are being developed to measure progress on the 2030 Agenda.

Ending child marriage and FGM also requires looking at these practices as human rights violations. They are not intractable cultural practices, but instead as behavior patterns that can be addressed with solutions we know work. These will vary in different contexts, and there is no “silver bullet.” But programs that incorporate community education and engagement, girls’ empowerment, and economic incentives have seen success.

For example, in Cameroon, IWHC’s partner organization Association pour la Promotion de l’Autonomie et des Droits de la Jeune Fille/Femme (APAD), is a network of child marriage survivors who work in villages and communities to educate families and religious, traditional, and community leaders on the harms of child marriage. These brave young women are turning the tide against child marriage in their communities, and enlisting local leaders as outspoken champions against the practice. At the same time, they help girls who are at risk of child marriage. They empower them to be advocates for themselves and others, and provide them with vocational training so that they can become economically independent once they complete their education.

Keeping girls in school has been shown to prevent child marriage, but governments must provide the types of education that will really have an impact. This means offering high-quality secondary and tertiary level education to all girls. All girls and boys should also have comprehensive sexuality education that examines gender discrimination and power dynamics within families and societies, which help perpetuate harmful practices.

Countries must also be willing to actually achieve universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights through services, information, and education for all. Considering that 90% of pregnant teenagers who are married are in developing countries, sexual and reproductive health services cannot be limited by age requirements or by consent from third parties such as spouses or parents. These services must be readily available wherever and whenever an individual needs them.

In Brazil, IWHC partner Reprolatina has shown that when comprehensive sexuality education and services are available to young people in non-judgmental, youth-friendly settings, there are positive outcomes. Reprolatina’s program in Barro Alto helped to drop adolescent birth rates from 40 percent to 10 percent in just two years. There are examples like this from around the world.

While we celebrate that ending harmful practices and achieving gender equality is in the 2030 Agenda, we know that the hard work is really just beginning. In order for the Agenda to have the impact we seek, governments will need to create national policies that reflect best practices and then invest in the programs, like those of Reprolatina and APAD, that we know work.

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