#BeBoldForChange: Promising practices to tackle early marriage

By Katharine Bryant

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is #BeBoldForChange. And the need to be bold could not be more timely.

Recent research by the World Economic Forum predicts that the economic gender gap won’t close entirely until 2186. Yes, you’ve read that right! That’s over 170 years away or, put another way: a girl child born today could hope to see her great, great, great, great, great-granddaughter achieve gender equality.

170 years is of course a global average; hidden behind this are regional disparities ranging from 47 years in Western Europe through to more than 1,000 years in South Asia. Nothing speaks louder of the need to be bolder in our efforts to achieve a more gender inclusive society.

Research has proven that one way to tackle gender inequality is to bring an end to gender-based violence and early marriage. Almost half of all child brides worldwide live in South Asia. Most of these children tend to be female, poor, living in rural areas, and have low levels of education and limited opportunities for employment. These girls are vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases and early pregnancy — both of which can put mothers and their babies at risk. Ending child marriage will therefore improve the health of women and girls and help to break intergenerational poverty. But how do we do this?

Some of our recent research has included a review of evaluations of anti-slavery and anti-trafficking programmes from the past 15 or so years. These evaluations have been identified systematically, and categorised per type of slavery, type of intervention and impact. The theory being that by reviewing the findings of evaluations of similar interventions, we can begin to deduce lessons learnt, or identify ‘promising practices’.

One of the key takeaways from our review of 18 evaluations of early marriage programmes is that while criminalising child marriage and enforcing the law is important, of more importance is tackling the social norms and economic reasons which influence the decision to marry early. Evaluations of programmes like Tostan and Berhane Hewan in Sub Saharan Africa, and the findings of a review of four programmes by the International Center for Research on Women, highlight the critical role of initiatives that not only create individual empowerment, but also address socio-cultural factors. A community empowerment approach, targeting both men and women, is crucial to ensuring longer term empowerment and longer term impact. This approach leads to programmes that don’t simply delay the age of marriage, but that work with whole communities to create a lasting shift in gender norms.

Less proven, but still promising, is the role of conditional and non-conditional cash transfers to provide families with economic reasons not to marry their daughters early. While short-term effects are promising, questions remain regarding the medium-term impact, with evidence that once an intervention finishes the rate of child marriage ‘bounces back’ to pre-intervention rates. There could be lessons learnt here regarding the need to provide communities with cash transfers earlier and for longer to ensure sustainability of results.

Community empowerment and financial incentives are two very concrete ways to tackle early marriage and to enable women and girls to participate fully in society. Being bold for change and ending child marriage provides hope that a child born today will have a real chance of experiencing gender equality within her lifetime. We don’t have to wait six generations to close the gender gap.