Voices from the Field features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to the advancement of women and U.S. foreign policy interests. This article is from Timi Gerson, who leads government affairs and public policy efforts for American Jewish World Service (AJWS) in Washington, D.C.
Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of attending the second annual Girls Summit in Washington, DC, where AJWS joined other organizations to discuss a problem that affects 15 million girls each year: early and child marriage (ECM). AJWS was thrilled to launch our new policy brief at the event, “What’s Missing in the Fight Against Early and Child Marriage: Insights from India.”
ECM occurs across cultures, religions, and ethnic groups, but it’s particularly prevalent in the developing world, where one out of every three girls marries before the age of 18. India alone accounts for one-third of the global total and is home to the highest absolute number of these young brides. In order to address ECM there, AJWS has drawn on the research, experiences, and insights of our partners in India, where we have funded social change efforts for more than 15 years. We’ve come to believe that policies and programmatic interventions must address the root causes of ECM, with a focus on empowering girls and their communities. Here are a few reasons why and some ideas on solutions:
Social norms and economic insecurity have led many parents in India to view ECM as the key to guaranteeing their daughters’ long-term access to food, shelter and other basic necessities. Highly restrictive beliefs about gender roles often make it difficult for girls and women in India to access higher education or well-paying jobs. These entrenched structural barriers reinforce an idea long held by many communities already: that a girl’s best option in life is to marry someone who will support her financially. Surrounded by these constraining cultural messages and limiting structures, many girls in India grow up believing they have no right to make informed choices about their lives and bodies. In turn, many girls and young women are effectively denied the right to choose if, when, whom and how to marry.
Early and child marriage doesn’t just lead to a set of restricted choices; it reflects and reinforces a set of restricted choices that already exist. Many current efforts to address ECM in India have focused solely on delaying the age of marriage until 18 or older in order to reduce negative health and educational outcomes. But the age of marriage is not the sole cause of these problems and restrictions on girls’ choices, so postponing marriage by a few years will not necessarily expand girls’ opportunities.
In response, AJWS has worked closely with our local partners in India to develop a comprehensive approach to ending ECM focused on the Four A’s. Together, these four key concepts can give girls the freedom to choose whether, when, and whom to marry— and, ultimately, to transform their lives:
First, foster aspirations by changing cultural beliefs about gender roles and encouraging women and girls to consider futures that previously seemed out of reach.
Second, help girls and young women develop agency—the ability to choose and to act independently—so they can take action to advance their goals.
Third, increase availability of institutions, policies, and services that enhance the ability of girls and young women to pursue jobs, education, and sexual health.
And fourth, promote access to support, resources, and services that help to counter any resistance from families and communities.
To develop a coordinated, comprehensive, and effective approach to ending early and child marriage, the U.S. government should commit to investing in and developing programs that draw upon the Four A’s approach. For example, the U.S. government can support other countries in evaluating progress toward Sustainable Development Goal 5.3—which aims to eliminate early and child marriage—with a focus on measuring indicators of young women’s empowerment and agency, not just their age at marriage. The U.S. government can also support interventions that offer girls the information and skills they need to make informed decisions about their lives—including comprehensive sexuality education and health services.
Moving forward, adopting a comprehensive approach that focuses simultaneously on individual, community, and structural level change is the key to decreasing early and child marriages worldwide.