Ending child marriage: a Belgian and UN priority

Alexis Clerebaut
06 December 2019
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and UNICEF are supported by Belgium to end child marriages by 2030. How can this objective be achieved?

 

Child marriage is any formal marriage or informal union where one or both of the parties are under 18 years of age. This global phenomenon is influenced by several complex and intertwined factors, involving values and standards. Culture, religious practice or belief systems may play a role, but there are also economic and political reasons that can explain the problem. Furthermore, the pressure of the social environment on individuals contributes to the inability to eradicate the phenomenon.

 

150 million girls are at risk of child marriage by 2030

This multifaceted violation of human rights deprives victims of their rights to health, safety and education. Every year, 12 million girls around the world are forced into marriage before they turn 18. Every seven seconds, a girl under the age of 15 is married. According to UNICEF, more than 150 million girls are at risk of being married by 2030.

This issue extends beyond their right to live their childhood. Marriage also limits economic opportunities and increases school drop-out rates. Moreover, child brides are more likely to experience domestic violence or forced sexual intercourse and receive less information about their rights. Early pregnancies also pose serious health risks to young girls.

The eradication of child marriages is a constituent element of children's rights. This is therefore a specific objective of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), in particular SDG 5.3: to eradicate all harmful practices such as early and forced child marriage and female genital mutilation. 

What UNICEF and UNFPA are doing

 

UNFPA and UNICEF have developed a joint global programme of action to end child marriages: the Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage (GPECM).It covers 12 countries: Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Mozambique, Nepal, Niger, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Yemen and Zambia. The partner countries finance the GPECM. This initiative is also based on the participation of local actors such as NGOs and government agencies responsible for implementing the various projects.

In 2018, the Global Programme provided information and services to more than 3 million girls and nearly 14 million people from different communities in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

The Programme focuses on five priority action areas:

 

1. Empowering teenage girls

It is possible to delay the age at which girls marry by informing them of the consequences of child marriage, allowing them to express their opinions and make their own choices, educating them about their rights, keeping them in the school system and helping them to develop their own support networks. Confident and educated girls are empowered to take well-informed decisions and choose the life they want to live.

Nineteen-year-old Marcia, for instance, who lives in Nampula City, Mozambique, was 17 years old when she left school during her fourth month of pregnancy. Today she says: “I have become an emancipated young woman. I know how to protect myself and stand up for my rights, which was not the case before.”

 

Marcia, 19 ans, Nampula City, Mozambique
Marcia, 19 years old, Nampula City, Mozambique

 

Marcia is one of those young girls who was forced into marriage. She was forced to engage in non-consensual sexual relations with the person designated as her husband. She was left to her own devices and did not know which way to turn. Two years ago, she was contacted by Rapariga Biz, a government-led initiative launched in 2016 and supported by the GPECM. The project aims to inform young girls about their health rights, particularly with regard to sexual and reproductive rights.

Marcia's case is far from isolated. Many teenage girls in Mozambique lack information about their sexual and reproductive rights. Only 14 % of girls between 15 and 19 years of age use contraception, while 46 % of the same age group become pregnant.

Group of African women dressed in colourful dresses
© UNWOMAN

2. Involve families, communities and leaders

Parents and community members are often the main actors in shaping the fate of girls. By transforming both gender and power relations within communities, we can change the gender norms that promote child marriage. To do so, it is essential to promote dialogue around the importance of girls' education and the harmful consequences of child marriage.

This is the story of Mestawet Mekuria, a 14-year-old girl living in the Amhara region, in the northern part of Ethiopia. She escaped forced marriage with the help of a “girls' club” supported by the GPECM programme.

 

Mestawet Mekuria, 14 ans, région d'Amhara, Ethiopie
Mestawet Mekuria, 14 years old, Amhara region, Ethiopia

 

“The problem of forced marriages was explained to me in our girls' club. I told my parents that I didn't want to get married, but they refused, so I went to the police station. I was sad when they were arrested but they refused to listen to me.” Mestawet then engaged in a mediation process with her parents, organised with the village authorities: “My parents now understand the issue of forced marriage and its consequences, they are no longer angry with me.”

3. Reinforce the responsiveness of services available to teenagers

Improving access to services that impact the quality of education, health, child protection and social protection leads to better outcomes for adolescent girls. These services provide more opportunities for families and can prevent the risk of teenage pregnancies by continuing to educate the girls and supporting them in building their own lives.

 

Mestawet Mekuria, 14 ans, région d'Amhara, Ethiopie
Irène Asibazuyo, 16 years old, Arua, Uganda

 

Irene Asibazuyo, a young woman living in Arua, Uganda, was expelled from school after an incident which happened in 2017. At the time, she was 15 years old and on her way to visit her uncle in Southern Sudan. She was raped by a man during this journey. A difficult situation with further aggravating factors: “In my culture, a rapist must take you as his wife. Otherwise, your family may be cursed. I could not go home because I would have been subjected to ridicule. Instead, I went to this man's house and explained the incident to his parents, who advised me to stay. From the moment he raped me, I knew that no man would ever want to marry me.”

Irene's parents were informed of the dangers of child marriage thanks to a campaign implemented by World Vision in her village, an organisation supported by UNICEF. These efforts were acknowledged when they crossed the border to return home to Uganda with a UNICEF social worker to support them.

4. Legislations and policies

Governments are able to protect girls from harmful practices by strengthening legal provisions, harmonising the law and enforcing it effectively. In addition, the United Nations encourages States concerned with child marriage to implement action plans.

Salmey Bebert, a child protection specialist born in Niger, a country where child marriage is a deeply rooted cultural belief, gives us an example: “It is part of the cultural heritage of Niger, a country that is influenced by religion. It is said that girls can be married from their first or second menstruation.”

In Niger, women do not always know who to turn to. Despite long years of efforts by UNICEF, there are no laws prohibiting child marriage. As Salmey Bebert says: “With great commitment from the President of the Republic, the government and the support of UNICEF, a decree was signed to promote girls' education. The document states that girls should be encouraged to go to school and that they are obliged to remain in the education system until they reach the age of 16. The implementation of this decree will help reduce child marriages.”

It is part of the cultural heritage of Niger, a country that is influenced by religion. It is said that girls can be married from their first or second menstruation.

Salmey Bebert, UNICEF Child Protection Specialist, Niger
© Twitter

5. Reliable data

Investing in the production and dissemination of evidence is essential to implement effective policies and programmes that can lead to large-scale change. Measuring changes in gender norms and relationships between people makes it possible to be more effective in the fight against child marriage.

The data collected can tell us more about the problems attributed to child marriage. These data show, for example, that in the last decade, child marriages have declined in India. In 2006, 47 % of women between 20 and 24 years old were married before their 18th birthday, whereas today we know that this figure is only 27 %.                                     

Belgium in action

Children's rights are a priority for the Belgian Development Cooperation. In addition, special attention is paid to young people and adolescents within the framework of "She Decides". That is why, since December 2018, our country has been earmarking 2 million euros a year for the GPECM, and this for a period of 4 years. 

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