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More Than Laws: What it Takes to Prevent Child Marriage

In this Q&A, Anju Malhotra, vice president for Social and Economic Development for the International Center for Research on Women, talks about the challenges and successes in the movement to end child marriage.

NOW: Despite its devastating consequences for girls and their communities, why does child marriage persist?

Anju Malhotra Anju Malhotra: Deeply rooted cultural beliefs and socioeconomic factors perpetuate child marriage in many of the world's poorest countries. Throughout the developing world, girls invariably are deprived of educational, social and economic opportunities. Parents often see marriage as a way to provide for their daughter's financial security or as an opportunity to receive compensation that enables the family to survive. Early marriage of daughters also is viewed as a means of preserving a family's honor; strengthening economic, social or political ties among different families, communities, castes or tribes; and protecting girls from premarital sex and violence.

NOW: How does a high prevalence of child marriage affect international development efforts?

AM: Child marriage not only violates the human rights of girls, but its negative consequences ripple across entire societies. The practice contributes to extreme and persistent poverty; high illiteracy; high incidence of infectious diseases, including HIV; elevated child mortality rates; high birth rates; low life expectancy for women; and hunger and malnutrition. The consequences of child marriage undermine nearly all the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, a set of eight targets that respond to the world's main development challenges.

NOW: Where child marriage is common, how are communities affected and what role do communities play?

AM: Child marriage often is perceived as an issue that should not or cannot be addressed because it is entrenched in tradition and social norms. Yet in communities where child marriage is common, many girls and their parents want to delay marriage but lack alternatives. Moreover, most countries with high rates of child marriage have legally established the minimum age of marriage at 18, but lack the resources and political commitment to enforce laws.

Governments and local civil society organizations in many of these countries are actively working to discourage the practice by raising awareness of the adverse consequences for girls, running programs that provide girls with viable alternatives to marriage, and demanding more effective enforcement of laws.

NOW: Is there evidence of success in changing the entrenched social norms that perpetuate child marriage?

Janabai convinced her parents to delay her age of marriage to 18 after learning about different options in a community life skills-building program.
Janabai convinced her parents to delay her age of marriage to 18 after learning about different options in a community life skills-building program.
AM: There are several examples of promising grassroots efforts that are delaying marriage for girls. The Institute of Health Management, Pachod (IHMP) , is engaging entire communities in Maharasthtra, India, to provide life-skills education for girls as an alternative to formal education, which is not normally available for girls beyond fourth grade. An evaluation by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) and IHMP found that between 1997 and 2001 the median age of girls who married young in these communities increased from 16 to 17. There was no age change in the communities who did not participate in this program.

Other successful programs include Tostan, an international nongovernmental organization based in Senegal, which uses a combination of nonformal education and social mobilization to advance its goal of empowering communities and reducing the practices of child marriage and female genital cutting. The Christian Children's Fund is working among Kenya's Massai tribe in a program that reforms the longstanding Massai tradition of "booking" infant girls for marriage by booking them for school instead. And in Ethiopia, Population Council has partnered with the community to launch a project called Berhane Hewan (or "Light for Eve") that helps girls avoid early marriage by promoting literacy, life skills, reproductive health education and opportunities for saving money.

NOW: How can development initiatives integrate efforts to combat child marriage?

AM: Development efforts that ignore the realities and consequences of child marriage have limited impact and waste precious resources. International donors could improve the effectiveness of aid dollars by integrating child marriage prevention into current development initiatives to reduce poverty; ensure the survival and health of infants, children and mothers; improve reproductive health; fight AIDS; and invest in girls' education.