Group of Indian school girls smiling

When it comes to ending child marriage, involve young people

Young people’s engagement in political, economic and social spaces is essential for ensuring sustainable human development. That’s why youth lead almost 20% of the organisations that make up Girls Not Brides’ global partnership, says Leila Billing, its Head of Partnership Development. Here, in their own words, these young activists have their say on their unique qualities and needs for effective civic engagement.

In May, Girls Not Brides spoke with over 100 youth activists aged 15 to 30 years from around the globe who are actively addressing child marriage in their communities. They answered three questions:           

  • What are the unique contributions that young people can make to building a child marriage-free world?
  • What are the biggest challenges young people campaigning against child marriage face?
  • How can civil society work in a more meaningful way with youth?

Here’s what they said:

“We are strong role models for our peers”

In the survey findings young people made a compelling case that they have particular influence over their peers as educators. They said that their ability to activate behaviour change among their peers needs to be recognised. 

One respondent from India said: “Do not underestimate the power of young people speaking out against early marriage. We are strong role models for our peers and are living evidence of what your life can be like if you are allowed to stay in school or continue with another form of education. We can, and we do, encourage solidarity actions by our peers and are capable of mobilizing powerful movements. We generate strength in numbers.”

“Youth provide an insight that adults simply do not possess” 

These young activists point out that the type of knowledge they bring to the table is essential for ensuring programme effectiveness, and it shouldn’t be undervalued.

Do not underestimate the power of young people speaking out against early marriage.

“Youth provide an insight that adults simply do not possess,” said one youth advocate from Bangladesh. “My insights have helped programme designers understand what strategies girls in my community use to self-protect and avoid early marriage. I have told them what it takes to make myself and my friends feel safe.”

“We know who is at risk of child marriage” 

Young people hang out with other young people. It’s this access to their peer group that puts them in a unique position.

One Ugandan advocate made the argument that youth play an central role in identifying which girls are threatened by early marriage: “We know who is at risk of child marriage; we hear the conversations that adults do not.” 

Challenges to youth participation

Yet, the challenges for ensuring meaningful youth participation in all aspects of work towards ending child marriage remain. And that’s largely due to their age and standing in society.

From Tonga to Tunisia, Palestine to Pakistan, youth resoundingly mentioned their frequent inability to convince adult decision-makers, donors as well as other civil society stakeholders that they are credible actors who can contribute valuable perspectives and opportunities. 

A large group of South Asian respondents, meanwhile, gave numerous examples of how, as young advocates, they faced a double backlash when they spoke out against child marriage. That’s because they were openly speaking about a sensitive topic, and they weren’t following accepted norms of how young people should behave.

What does meaningful youth engagement look like?

The survey was full of forward-looking solutions and recommendations about how young people can be better engaged in ending child marriage. They urged more creativity in the way youth are trained, and they said they wanted sustained working relationships with adults instead of one-off interactions through workshops or campaign events. 

Girls in classroom

They said collaborative relationship with adult activists would support them when reaching out to diverse groups of young people, including young women whose voices are seldom heard.

But they’re not looking for immediate leadership responsibility. Instead they asked for the technical support that will allow them to take the lead in the future: “We need preparation and support to enable us to lead an anti-child marriage campaign. Sometimes I feel we are set up to fail,” said one youth advocate from Kenya. 

Time to give youth a chance

As adults, we must ask ourselves if we are really facilitating meaningful youth engagement and participation. Or, if we’re honest with ourselves, perhaps we are we still holding on to the reins, reluctant to give young people access to spaces adults usually control. It’s time to strive for a brave new world where youth action to end child marriage is supported by us all.

Photos courtesy of Girls Not Brides.
Top: Graham Crouch, The Elders.
Side: Tom Pietrasik, The Elders.