Reflections on the State of the Early and Child Marriage Movement

The issue of early and child marriage has evolved tremendously in recent years as global awareness has been raised and community solutions have been developed. Nowhere was this more evident than in the recent Girls Not Brides (GNB) global meeting in Kuala Lumpur in June. After reflecting on all I heard, learned and saw during my time in Malaysia, a few observations stand out.

Problem and Success Definition: From Age to Agency

I’m most enthused by the evolution in how the problem of child marriage is understood and defined. Historically, the field has been marked by a tension between those who see it primarily as a problem of poverty versus those who characterize child marriage as a symptom of patriarchy.  This poverty versus patriarchy tension has real implications – do we “solve” child marriage through investments in cash transfers to families that have demonstrated the ability to delay marriage by a few years but do less to truly empower girls? Or do we invest in building girls’ aspirations and agency?

At Kendeda, we believe the root cause of child marriage is gender inequality – and that sustainable change must come from tackling the social norms that underlie the practice. Happily, that frame is now much more widely accepted.  The GNB meeting was full of panels and presentations that endorsed this view, including sessions on changing social norms, challenging taboos, and comprehensive gender transformative sexuality programming.  GNB founder and Chair Mabel Van Oranje ended the Global Meeting saying, “We’ve been talking more profoundly than I have ever seen about the gender inequality that is driving so much of child marriage.”

Yet as a movement, we continue to grapple with all this entails. Most notably, success in this work is still defined overwhelmingly by measuring age at marriage.  It is a helpful data point to be sure. But it is not wholly sufficient in and of itself. We need to develop consistent, widely agreed upon measures that more fully represent the totality of girls’ realities today – factors such as mental health, access to education and reproductive health services, mobility, participation in the workforce, and the autonomy and power they have within their own homes to negotiate everything from division of household labor to the decision to have sex.

Understanding the Role of Law

Recent good news about declining rates of child marriage in South Asia—the region where Kendeda works most intensively—was widely discussed at the GNB conference.  In some cases, these declining rates were interpreted as a by-product of enforcing age-at-marriage laws.. Unfortunately, at the community level, we have seen that such enforcement can create community backlash and drive the practice underground more than actually curtailing it. Similarly, adolescent girls expressing normal, healthy sexual desire are also at risk of their behavior being criminalized.

Both of these problems suggest a strategic shift may be called for:  Our movement needs a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the role of law and policy – one which considers a broader range of policy and legal solutions that enhance girl’s options and power rather than suppressing it.  We might, for example, align around laws that give every girl access to a high-quality, gender-responsive secondary education; or laws that create more gender equity in property-rights and inheritance; or policies responsive to girls who want to safely leave behind abusive or otherwise undesirable marriages.

Valuing the Role of Community-Based Organizations

There is increasing recognition by our movement that the voices of girls and those most directly affected by child marriage are critical to understanding and solving the problem. It’s why solutions that are girl-centered and community-led were on full display in Kuala Lumpur.  Yet, funders working on these issues continue to under-invest in many of the organizations working closest to the problem.

The recently announced Girls First Fund is a partial solution to this problem.  But smart investing requires more than money alone. Civil society space is shrinking across the globe, particularly for those activists who are challenging existing power structures and dynamics.   Nationally, repressive governments are waging war against human rights’ defenders while at the community level, we hear daily about the real risks faced by girls and women who are attempting to disrupt traditional practices. Community-based organizations need all manner of support – they are asking for capacity-building to help them effectively tackle sensitive topics like sexuality and they deserve resources and support to keep at-risk activists safe as they do their work.

These challenges notwithstanding, I am confident that the growing universe of advocates, activists and funders are well-positioned to accelerate the fight to end child marriage.  We just have some more work to do as we redouble our efforts. We need to aggressively grapple with the questions of measuring our success beyond age of marriage, with the role of law and law enforcement, and with adequately and comprehensively resourcing the community-based organizations so critical to our work.

The hard work of social change happens in fits and starts, and no one can predict when or how the big tectonic shifts will occur. But we can shape the conditions that make those big breakthroughs possible.  The groundwork for ending early and child marriage has been laid. We are making huge progress, and gaining more insight every day about what needs to be done. It’s incumbent upon us all to keep going.