Campaigners in the fight against child, early and forced marriage will have celebrated the recent news that child marriage is decreasing globally.
According to UNICEF’s latest figures, the proportion of women who were married as children decreased by 15% in the last decade.* The total number of girls married in childhood is now estimated at 12 million a year.
These new figures point to an accumulated global reduction of 25 million fewer marriages than would have been anticipated under global levels 10 years ago.
“By ending child marriage we want to create equality between the sexes. A woman should take a leading role in society,” says Charity.
Malawi made a historic amendment to its constitution to fully outlaw child marriage in February 2017 following campaigning by young activists like Charity.
Regions progress at different speeds
UNICEF’s statement acknowledges that the remarkable progress recorded globally in tackling child early and forced marriage is not uniform across regions.
Improving trends in child marriage are driven largely by significant reductions in South Asia, but the problem persists, with over 150 million girls still likely to marry by 2030.
South Asia has witnessed the largest decline in child marriage worldwide in the last 10 years. A girl’s risk of marrying before her 18th birthday has dropped from nearly 50% to 30%, in large part due to progress in India.
And there are lessons to learn from this part of the world. UNICEF suggests the outcome can be attributed to concerted efforts in “increasing rates of girls’ education, proactive government investments in adolescent girls, and strong public messaging around the illegality of child marriage and the harm it causes”.
Population growth may hinder progress
Considerable reductions have also been recorded in Eastern and Southern Africa. For example, Zambia had a prevalence rate of 42% 8 years ago which has come down to 31%.* Reductions have also been seen in Malawi and Zimbabwe. Progress in this region can be attributed to national campaigns to end child marriage, supported by activists like Charity.
Young people are a vital resource for challenging the prevailing cultural norms that allow child marriage to continue.
However, reductions in this region are threatened by population growth. Even if the current rate of success is maintained, the population boom (2.58% growth per annum) means progress is not fast enough to eradicate the practice.* The number of women married as children will, in fact, double by 2050.
Invest in girls
To sustain the reduction in child marriage amid population growth, Plan International has the following recommendations from 18+, our collaborative, multi-level programme to end child marriage. The model is based on a review of key drivers of child marriage in the region and builds on key principles and priorities that are scalable in different contexts.
- Firstly, governments that have not yet heeded the call must set the legal age of marriage to 18 for both girls and boys and enforce these laws to protect children. There are still many cases of child marriage in Malawi because people are not aware of the law change. Youth activists like Charity are tackling this head-on by engaging with their communities using radio, music and theatre to teach them about children’s’ rights and make them aware there is now a law against the practice.
- Secondly, we must invest in and support girls’ education. Child marriage is intricately linked to issues of value, power and control. Educated girls are less likely to marry early and are more employable, allowing them to have more control over their lives.
- Further, governments must commit to providing young people with sexual and reproductive health services to reduce teenage pregnancy – an issue that feeds into the child marriage problem. Parents will often ‘solve’ the issue of teenage pregnancy by forcing their daughters to marry. This could be avoided with better education for young people about their bodies and their rights.
Using this innovative model, the 18+ programme has mobilised girls at risk of child marriage so that they have the capabilities to determine their own futures, especially choices about if, when, and who they marry.
We must all take action to end child marriage
With these foundations in place, and with the support of governments and NGOs, young people are empowered to take on the child marriage problem in their communities. Young people are a vital resource for challenging the prevailing cultural norms that allow child marriage to continue. But we must educate them, support them and give them the tools to create change in their own lives.
To sustain the gains made and accelerate the eradication of child marriage globally, these community and youth-led interventions must be promoted, scaled up, and crucially, funded.
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