Child marriage, arguably the most common form of forced marriage in the world, is a human rights violation defined as a formal marriage or informal union where one or both parties are under 18 years of age. This practice occurs all across cultures and religions and disproportionately affects girls – 12 million girls under the age of 18 are coerced or sold into marriage every year for reasons including tradition, gender inequality, and poverty. Girls pressed into child marriage face increased threats to their mortality and health. In addition to the increased likelihood of suffering from domestic violence, pregnant teenage girls are also at higher risk of complications in pregnancy or childbirth and are more vulnerable to pregnancy-related injuries such as obstetric fistula. Pregnancy and childbirth are also the leading cause of death in young women aged 15–19.
Efforts to eradicate child marriage have been gaining traction over the past decade. However, the Coronavirus pandemic in 2020 has caused a surge in child marriage across Asia and Africa. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), an additional 13 million girls could be forced into marriage as the global crisis pushes more families into poverty. By mid-2020, there have already been reports of this happening in Zimbabwe, Malawi, and among Syrian families in Turkey,
As child marriage is most common in conservative patriarchal cultures where intervention is difficult and often requires collective effort to successfully stop the practice, here is a starter list of 16 actions that schools and communities can take to stop girls from being married off. Eight suggestions are aimed at communities and 8 suggestions are aimed at schools. While not everything on this list may be suitable for your particular school or community, we hope that this will be a useful starting point. If you have any other suggestions and tips, please do share them in the comments section.
Introduction and additional content/research by Regina Yau; Community section researched and written by Samantha Joseph; School section researched and written by Susanna Lim.
8 Actions Communities Can Take to Prevent and Intervene in Child Marriage
Action Against Child Marriage #1: Engage community influencers
Adults, especially those who are considered elders, are the defacto gatekeepers and decision-makers in many of the cultures that practice child marriage. Powerful community influencers include religious leaders, political leaders and cultural gatekeepers. Any effort to successfully engage a community in stopping child marriage needs to begin with reaching out to these leaders as they wield the power to affect the way social norms are practiced in small communities. For example: The Youth Harvest Foundation in Ghana works with Muslim and Christian religious leaders to tackle child marriage in northern Ghana where it is most prevalent.
Action Against Child Marriage #2: Educate men and boys
A major reason child marriage exists in many conservative cultures is because of sexism, misogyny and toxic masculine expectations, where men are socialised to treat girls as little more than commodities and their wives as chattel. For child marriage to end, such attitudes must also be eradicated from the cultural programming of men. One way of making inroads into this is to educate men about gender equality, sexual consent and to treat women as full human beings in their own right. For example: World Vision, together with Promundo and MenCare, launched a programme manual to engage fathers in preventing child marriage in India. The workshops provide a space to understand and redefine their position, and that of their daughters, in a community.
Action Against Child Marriage #3: Petition for anti-child marriage legislation
Another step that communities can take to enforce an end to child marriage is to ensure that it is made illegal. Doing so requires amending or creating laws, and this means the involvement of lawmakers. Write letters to your local members of parliaments or start petitions and collect signatures to end child marriage. For example: A year-long campaign in Malawi resulted in an amendment to Malawi’s marriage act, changing the minimum age of consent for both genders to 18. The campaigners frequently involved local MPs and community leaders in their discussions, and targeted community leaders and decision-makers in their awareness campaign.
Action Against Child Marriage #4: Form child protection committees
Create child protection committees focused on ensuring that girls of school-going age continue attending school, and maintaining a record of marriages in the area. An example is the Community Child Protection Committees in Ghana who have been able to rescue 25 girls from child marriage since they were set up five years ago to protect the rights of children. Depending on the size and the structure of your local community, such committees can either function at the grassroots level as the sub-section of your village council or neighbourhood association that specifically deals with child marriage in your area, or be a chapter of a larger network of state or national level child protection efforts.
Action Against Child Marriage #5: Get educated to enable change
Community groups engaged in preventing child marriage should also take the initiative to attend programmes or workshops run by organisations such as Girls Not Brides and United Nations agencies such as UNICEF and UNFPA which have the resources and expertise to help communities get their child marriage prevention efforts started. Such programmes and workshops will help community groups understand the issues and challenges that they will face, and actions that they are allowed to take depending on their legal position. Example: World Vision’s Faith in Social Change project in Afghanistan targets faith leaders to change the societal expectations in community. 85% of imams trained under the project have gone on to speak publicly on women’s rights and child protection.
Action Against Child Marriage #6: Talk to young people
Children and teenagers are the future of communities – what they are taught while growing up may well change or even abolish destructive traditions like child marriage in the future. So talk to them about how systemic sexism and misogyny in patriarchal society causes all forms of violence against women, including child marriage, and why it is important to stop such practices. Example: ActionAid has been offering Young Feminist Leadership training in Bangladesh via their Global Platform for youth-led activism, which also discusses child marriage. In 2016, when one of their participants returned to her village and started raising awareness of child marriage, she herself was married off as a child bride by her family. Knowing that this was illegal, she managed to contact her fellow trainees and teachers who helped her escape her marriage.
Action Against Child Marriage #6: Set up youth centres
Setting up community youth centres allows organisations that want to end child marriage to communicate with youth at their level. Not only does it help the vulnerable, it also helps educate their friends and fellow students. A study showed that peer education is an effective model in helping promote awareness of the negative consequences of child marriage to other youth. Example: In Matiari, Pakistan, Theirworld (a global children’s charity), local children’s rights organisation Idara- e-Taleem-o-Aagahi, and the Alliance Against Child Marriages Sindh worked together to create a child-marriage free zone. This included creating youth groups to spread awareness and intervene in child marriages, and creating a knowledge hub where information on news and tools were easily accessible.
Action Against Child Marriage #8: Support girls’ education
One of the most important strategies for reducing and preventing child marriage is ensuring that girls are educated. Communities play an important role in supporting girls’ education and there are many ways of doing so. These include building a girls’ schools in their district or neighbourhood if there isn’t one yet, sponsoring school fees and supplies for girls from poor families, and starting tutoring programmes for girls who need extra academic help. Example: The BALIKA project in Bangladesh provided tutoring in various areas including English, maths, first aid and mobile phone servicing. The girls who received these training opportunities were 23% less likely to be married at the end of the 18-month programme.
8 Ways Schools Can Take to Prevent and Intervene in Child Marriage
Action Against Child Marriage #9: Make school accessible for girls
When girls have the opportunity to thrive at school and complete secondary school at the very least, they stand a greater chance of avoiding being married off before they turn 18. There are a variety of methods that schools can use to increase the likelihood of keeping girls in school, including collaborating with the village, town or neighbourhood elders to drive community support, designing school curricula that balance academic studies with practical life skills, adapting school hours to the local culture, providing free transportation for girls who have to travel from further afield, and ensuring that school supplies are available to even the poorest student.
Action Against Child Marriage #10: Make safety a priority
In countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria where child marriage rates are the highest in the world, girls and the schools and teachers that educate them are routinely subject to attacks, including bombings, fires, and mass kidnappings. The safety issue is one of the top reasons for parents pulling their daughters out of schools. It is a major roadblock for efforts to ensure that girls complete their education, or even get started at school. To help girls complete their schooling, schools and educators need to have systems in place to protect girls and provide them with safety both during travel to educational institutions and uninterrupted safety at school. For example: in war-torn areas, school boards might consider working with community influencers to lobby the government to enforce the law of war that prohibits the targeting of civilian buildings such as schools and hospitals by the military.
Action Against Child Marriage #11: Give parents incentives
For many families, especially poor ones, schooling is considered a privilege that is only provided to sons. One of the best ways for encouraging families to send their girls to school is providing parents with a compelling incentive to support their daughters’ education. Poverty is a major driver for parents to marry off their teenaged daughters, so, for example, Plan International launched an initiative in South Sudan to give children food rations at school to share with their families once they return home. This guarantee of food in a country still experiencing food shortages is a powerful motivation for parents to keep their daughters in school instead of marrying them off early.
Action Against Child Marriage #12: Educate parents
Many parents are driven by poverty or tradition to sell their daughters into marriage, unaware that there are alternatives to child marriage for their girls. Parent-teacher meetings or events held at schools for parents can be great opportunities to educate them about the benefits of having educated daughters who are not married before they attain adulthood. For example, Berhane Ewan, a programme in Ethiopia, held community discussions involving girls’ parents to encourage dialogue and conversations surrounding the issue of child marriage and the importance of keeping girls in school. By educating parents and rallying them to abandon the practice of child marriage, parents can make decisions regarding their daughters that will drive cultural change within their communities.
Action Against Child Marriage #13: Intervention by teachers
One of the main challenges with intervening in child marriages is that parents are usually the ones who arrange the impending marriage. As teachers interact daily with students and take responsibility for them during school hours while also periodically dealing with students’ parents, they potentially play a pivotal role in preventing the marriage from transpiring. For example, the simple practice of taking attendance and noticing if a student has been absent for an unexplained duration or if a parent has told a teacher of the plans of the marriage can both be prompts to alert the school’s administration, social workers and authorities to intervene.
Action Against Child Marriage #14: Include life skills in the curriculum
Aside from academic subjects, schools should also teach young girls life skills at an early age to empower them and provide them with the tools to make decisions for themselves. These life skills could include coping with stress, how to respond in an emergency, financial literacy, creative and critical thinking, decision-making, and problem solving. Incorporating life skills into girls’ education will arm them with the ability to deal with the challenges of everyday life and increases their confidence in resisting social norms such as child marriage. For example, introducing life skills training in the Indian town of Odisha has dramatically reduced and may have even have eliminated the practice of child marriage.
Action Against Child Marriage #15: Provide counselling services
Counselling services for students in schools can provide a safe place for girls to come forward should their parents be arranging a premature marriage on their behalf or should they be pregnant and unsure of who to turn to. Counsellors can intervene to stop child marriages by either approaching parents to further understand the situation, by contacting authorities or through community intervention. Skilled counsellors who have the ability to communicate with both students and parents can go a long way in preventing child marriage from taking place. Counsellors can focus on capacity building strategies such as highlighted in a study in Anambra State in Nigeria. These strategies may include developing a safe and trusting relationship with the student, providing seminars and workshops for parents, and working together with educators to develop handbooks or guides on how to shun child-marriage.
Action Against Child Marriage #16: Provide sexual health education
Last but not least, a common hurdle for preventing child marriage is the lack of sexual health education, particularly in communities and cultures where sex remains a taboo subject for public discussion. In Zimbabwe, where child marriage is commonly practiced, a UNFPA survey showed that only 4% of girls between the ages 10 and 19 had comprehensive knowledge on pregnancy. Schools that include sexual health education can provide girls with an understanding of their own bodies and make them aware of their right to protect themselves from this practice. For example, through the Maharashtra Life Skills Program in India, the median age of girls pressed into underaged marriage in the area where the programme was implemented increased from 16 to 17 after they learned about sexual health topics.
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