from Women Around the World and Women and Foreign Policy Program

New Report on Strategies to Stop Child Marriage

April 24, 2014 4:23 pm (EST)

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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This post is from Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) fellow, and Lynn ElHarake, research associate for the CFR Women and Foreign Policy Program. It has been edited from an original post on Girls Not Brides. 

Each year, more than 14 million girls around the world will be married before they reach their eighteenth birthday. That’s 38,461 girls a day, twenty-seven every minute, or about one girl every two seconds, according to data from Plan UK. But while we know that child marriage is a global phenomenon that transcends geographical boundaries, religion, and faith -- one that stymies the health, education, and economic potential of girls -- a strong idea of how to combat this practice remains elusive.

Last week, the Women and Foreign Policy Program at CFR published a paper that aims to answer this question. High Stakes for Young Lives: Examining Strategies to Stop Child Marriage reviews the challenges of addressing child marriage and highlights strategies from around the world designed to curb the practice. The paper offers recommendations on what sorts of interventions policy makers and civil society leaders could use in addressing the practice—and what additional information is needed.

Despite domestic laws and international accords banning child marriage, the tradition persists in communities where laws go unheeded and unenforced. Even where prevention and elimination programs  provide girls with alternative options to marriage—whether by keeping girls in school, providing them with cash transfers, and/or regulating birth and marriage registrations—cultural norms preserve these traditions. As such, we argue that “no one option provides an answer to the challenge of child marriage. Instead, a mix of legal frameworks, education policies, enforcement standards, attitude shifts, and economic incentives is required in order to ensure that the practice is eradicated in all communities, including those where it is a deep-rooted cultural practice.”

While more research on the social, economic, and cultural factors that contribute to child marriage is needed, some organizations are already trying to curb the practice. For example, the Berhane Hewan program in Ethiopia—a country with one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world—provides girls with school materials and livelihood skills that help them stay in school, extend their education, and eventually increase their household income. The Safe Age of Marriage project in Yemen has facilitated a shift in community perceptions of child marriage by training volunteers to conduct educational outreach activities. The program’s efforts have reached nearly 29,000 people and program data shows that it has helped reduce the rate of child marriage in targeted communities.

Similar initiatives engaging with religious leaders, men, and boys, the gatekeepers for women in many societies, can allow for changes in cultural norms that lead to delayed age of marriage and improved educational and economic opportunities for girls and women. Mandating birth and marriage registration can allow governments to give children official identities, track if children are getting married, and better enforce age of marriage laws, as evidenced in Bangladesh.

One of the most followed child marriage prevention programs, Apni Beti, Apna Dhan (ABAD), employed conditional cash transfers as a way of encouraging families in the Indian state of Haryana to keep their daughters unwed until age eighteen. Early evidence from a first round of evaluations conducted by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) shows that beneficiaries of the ABAD program were more likely to be in school at age eighteen than non-beneficiaries, a positive indicator given that more years of schooling for a girl often leads to a delayed age of marriage, according to the United Nations Population Fund. While the impact of ABAD on age of marriage will not be seen until the second set of evaluations from ICRW next year, if the program proves effective, it will inform the conversation exploring whether cash transfers can be scaled in other locations to help reshape community perceptions surrounding the value of girls.

Challenges may seem daunting given that child marriage rates, while declining over the past thirty years, have remained stubbornly high. But there are steps that the United States, in concert with other governments, NGOs, the United Nations, and the private sector, can take to curb and eventually eliminate child marriage globally. These steps include:

- Support efforts to address the root causes of child marriage, particularly poverty and education levels.

- Include child marriage elimination and prevention priorities in diplomacy.

- Break out data on gender-related programs to separate dollars devoted specifically to curbing child marriage.

- Focus on innovations and the role they can play in curbing child marriage.

- Better track dollars and conduct more in-depth evaluations of programs targeting child marriage.

- Target funding for programs in countries with high prevalence rates by proportion and absolute numbers.

Download the full CFR report here. 

CFR’s work on child marriage in FY2014 has been made possible thanks to a generous grant from the Ford Foundation. 

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