I first started working on the issue of ending child marriage three years ago, supporting my colleagues through Parliamentary advocacy as we sought to highlight how the practice can be eliminated through working with children and their communities.
The Commonwealth often emphasises the importance of local and national legislation and its enforcement to end this practice. This is something that is at the core of World Vision’s approach to stopping child marriage – through challenging the prevailing social norms that support child marriage by working with faith leaders, community leaders, parents, teachers and the children themselves, it is possible to change established mores and put an end to this practice.
Although girls are still married as children at an alarming rate today, a lot has changed in the past three years. In Justine Greening the UK had a Secretary of State for International Development who championed women and girls, a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and a commitment within them to end child marriage by 2030. It’s an admirable commitment, but if we are to achieve it, it’s clear that we must scale up our effort.
In the meantime, 15 million girls are being married before the age of 18 every year. Nilanjona, for example, lives in Panchbibi community in Bangladesh, where we have been running a child sponsorship programme for 12 years. Thankfully, her father’s plans to get her married came just after her mum had attended one of World Vision's training sessions for mothers, that teaches them about the dangers of early marriage to their daughters. In Nilanjona’s own words, “I know the result of early marriage is death.”
With Nilanjona and her mum both opposed to the marriage, they managed to convince her father to shelve the idea until Nilanjona has completed her education. She now hopes to become a doctor. What’s more, Nilanjona has taken her experiences and is using them to help teach other girls in her community about their rights. Every Thursday afternoon, she works with our staff in Panchbibi to run life skills sessions for other young girls. Her story gives you hope that even in this densely populated country where 52% girls are married by their 18th birthday, change is possible, and in Nilanjona’s case, spreading.
However, there is still much to do. Every minute, 28 girls around the world meet the fate Nilanjona escaped. They are stripped of their rights to health, education and opportunity, exposed to violence throughout their lives and potentially trapped in a cycle of poverty.
The world is now at a crossroads. We have a set of SDGs that can create seismic change for the world’s most vulnerable children, but we also face a more uncertain world than at any time in recent history. Here in the UK we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel MP, who can help create a world where no girl is married before she is ready. Our vision for how this can be achieved is set out in a joint report by Girls Not Brides UK, World Vision, The Royal Commonwealth Society and Plan UK.
Change can be achieved in tangible ways, such as scaling up current programmes designed to end child marriage, recognising the vital role that community engagement plays in this and ensuring that programmes designed to end child marriage and Violence against Women and Girls (VAWG) and promote education are mainstreamed across DFID’s portfolio, particularly in fragile contexts.
DFID can be proud of its record in ending child marriage. The Girl Summit in 2014 highlighted DFID’s strong global leadership on this issue. Now is the time to harness that leadership and see through the change it can create so girls like Nilanjona can continue to reach their full potential.
Girls Not Brides UK is a national partnership of UK based civil society organisations that seek to end child marriage and enable girls to thrive. We believe that DFID have played a key role in raising the issue of child marriage; now the new Secretary of State must see this progress through and ensure that the practice is ended by 2030 so that girls like Nilanjona can reach their full potential. You can read the new report and its recommendations.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Royal Commonwealth Society