Group of girls

To end child marriage, we must focus on girls

That child marriage is harmful has only recently gained widespread recognition. The Population Council’s country director in Ethiopia, Annabel Erulkar, explores why girls should be at the heart of all efforts to end the practice.

The numbers are staggering: Every day 37,000 girls get married. Over the next 10 years, 13.5 million girls under the age of 18 will follow them. For 700 million girls and women, early, forced marriage is already a reality they live with all the time.

Despite these large numbers, married adolescent girls have attracted global attention only recently. In July 2014, the Girl Summit in London shone a welcome light on this harmful practice, leading the governments of countries around the world to make pledges to end child marriage.

This marked an important milestone for development and health professionals like me who have long understood the gravity of the situation. In the past, debates around the issue rarely included girls themselves. If they had, they would have heard about the very real experiences child brides face, like this 22-year-old from the Amhara region of Ethiopia:

“I was married when I was 8. My husband was 19,” she told our researchers at the Population Council in Ethiopia. “I was 12 the first time we had sex, and when I had to spend the night with him, I suffered a lot. My family weren’t concerned about my problems – they’re the ones who forced me into marriage and to stay with my husband.”

We must keep the needs of these millions of girls at the heart of efforts to end child marriage. If we do, the effects will be far-reaching, impacting the generations of children they raise and the economies of the countries in which they live.

So, what are those needs?

THE REALITY FOR CHILD BRIDES 

The health effects of early marriage on girls are probably the most widely understood. After marriage, pregnancy often follows, yet young adolescent girls’ bodies are not physically ready to bear children. The risks of early childbirth include maternal death or medical conditions such as fistula, which can lead to social isolation.

Less discussed is the fact that a girl’s first sexual experience within these arrangements is frequently forced. The younger the girl when married, the more likely this is the case.

Most child brides have little or no education at all, meaning they lack the skills, resources and experiences to manage the very adult situations they face, such as a relationship with a much older man. Child marriage not only effectively ends a girl’s education, it also limits her personal development and expression as an individual.

I was 12 the first time we had sex, and when I had to spend the night with him, I suffered a lot.

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It also means a lack of access to needed resources, such as family planning services, or healthcare for her and her children. In many settings, married adolescent girls report the highest unmet need for family planning compared with women in other age groups.

This practice that is so harmful to girls on an individual level also undermines the development and security of nations. It shortens the time span between successive generations and fuels population growth, crippling already poor economies which cannot keep pace with the infrastructure needed to support rapidly growing populations, including schools, clinics and other basic services.

We know that girls who stay in school longer delay their first sexual experience, have children later, are healthier and have healthier children who are more likely to be educated. Educated girls also add to a country’s GDP helping to boost its economy.

WHAT PUTTING GIRLS FIRST LOOKS LIKE

A Population Council programme in the Amhara region of Ethiopia called Meseret Hiwott (“Base of Life”) is a good example of the focus on girls but which also includes men and boys, with the explicit understanding that their involvement benefits girls.

Through Meseret Hiwott, 300 adult female leaders were recruited from local rural communities and trained to be mentors of, and advocates for, married adolescent girls. Once trained, female leaders went house-to-house to identify and recruit married girls into groups that met in safe spaces. At the household level, mentors could negotiate for the involvement of girls in the programme should they face resistance or suspicion from husbands and in-laws. Meseret Hiwott mentors reached around 230,000 married girls. 

Ethiopia child bride

Once in groups, girls receive reproductive health and HIV education, as well as skills related to communication and self-expression. Those who participated were nearly eight times more likely to receive voluntary counselling and testing for HIV. Anecdotally, we found that communication between the girls and their husbands improved: “When I talk to my husband, he understands me,” one girl told us. “Previously, I couldn’t even express myself and my ideas to my husband. Now we can discuss issues with each other.” 

Programmes that engage men and boys should be tactical. Such decisions should be based on critical examination of whether to invest in groups of people other than girls; which other boys and men to target; when their involvement should be sought so as not to jeopardise the full participation of girls; and what the cost is with the involvement of others, including the financial cost and the cost to girls’ visibility and benefit.

A Population Council programme for husbands, Addis Birhan (“New Light”), which reached 130,000 men, used a similar mentorship method to teach men how to be better supporters of their young wives. This included help with domestic work, caring for children, eliminating violence and supporting healthcare and services such as family planning.

Keeping girls at the centre of the programme and the investment – rather than boys and men or other community members – got results. We saw a rise in girls’ confidence, visibility, voice and participation – all areas in which child marriage fundamentally undermines girls and sets them back. Child marriage oppresses girls and the child marriage movement owes the bulk of its resources to those who have been affected while preventing the millions of child marriages forecast for the future. 

Photo by Zeleman Productions, courtesy of Population Council.