Youth advocate, Sifat, from Bangladesh, became a girls’ rights ally at 13 years-old when he heard a talented girl, the same age as him, from a nearby village was due to get forcibly married.
With some friends, Sifat gathered evidence of the marriage and took it to the Local Administration to report the crime. (Child marriage has been outlawed in the country for decades, but nevertheless continues.)
The group managed to stop the wedding and even raised funds to help the girl to finish her studies. Sifat and the girl are both now 21. He is an engineering student and member of the UN Youth Advisory Panel who will be representing Plan International at the Girls Not Brides conference this week.
The girl? She is now happily married and working towards her undergraduate degree.
Causes and effects of child marriage in Asia
Asia has some of the most significant levels of child, early and forced marriage (CEFM) with Bangladesh and Nepal among the top 20 countries, while India has 3 times the number of child brides to the next highest country.
More than anything else, [child marriage] is caused by gender inequalities that reduce girls and young women to their traditional reproductive and subservient roles.
Arranged marriages - those in which the partners are identified and approved by family or community members - remain common, especially in South Asia. Sometimes a child marriage is registered by exaggerating the age of the girl, or not registering until she reaches an eligible age. Marriages resulting from unintended pregnancy, including from sexual coercion or assault, are not uncommon.
We know that the root causes of child marriage are numerous, deeply entrenched and interconnected. The practice stems from customs and traditions, poverty, lack of opportunities and weak legal frameworks and law enforcement. But more than anything else, it is caused by gender inequalities that reduce girls and young women to their traditional reproductive and subservient roles.
We also know that child marriage affects girls in many different ways. It deprives them of opportunities to excel to their full potential and lead lives of their own making. They are more likely to become pregnant at an early age, experience violence, abuse and forced sexual relations and end up isolated without proper support systems. Married girls miss out on educational opportunities and subsequently rarely reach economic empowerment.
Progress is possible
However, there has been a marked decline in CEFM across Asia over the last decade. The sharpest decline has occurred in India, where rates have fallen from 47% to 27%. This achievement has been hard earned through improved access to education for girls and increased public awareness of the negative effects of the practice.
India has strong civil society and gender equality movements. A huge amount of work is taking place to end child marriage and to improve the lives of already married girls. These groups understand that it’s vital to tackle the underlying, deep-rooted causes of child marriage, including the control of women’s sexuality and fear of harming family honour.
Strategies that encourage girls to become active, empower them to make decisions and raise their aspirations for education and economic opportunities are essential to breaking down prevailing customs. Indonesia has some great recent examples.
The Youth Coalition for Girls was established in 2015 and is continually expanding. The group has been active in raising awareness on the harmful impacts of child marriage.
Young Indonesians also engaged with the 2014 judicial review of the marriage law. They provided testimony to the court, conducted public awareness campaigns and mobilised support on the ground.
Within the efforts to change harmful customs, the need to work with religious and traditional leaders has been noted. In 2017, a congress of hundreds of female clerics issued an unprecedented fatwa against child marriage, asking the Indonesian government to raise the age of marriage to 18 for women.
Together we can end child marriage
Whilst girls must be empowered to fight for their own rights, Sifat acknowledges the important role men and boys can play in the fight against child marriage, a topic he’ll be speaking about at the Girls Not Brides conference this week.
Communities are not always ready to listen to girls. In our society, men and boys are in a safer position to be activists.
“Generally child marriage involves the marriage of a younger girl to an adult man by the will of the head of the family - often a man. So men are the main stakeholders.”
“Plus, communities are not always ready to listen to girls. In our society, men and boys are in a safer position to be activists.”
Bold and strategic methods for bringing an end to child marriage can be witnessed across Asia. However, empowering young people to claim their rights must be aligned with government initiatives to expand girls’ access to education, strengthen social and economic resources, and improve laws and policies.
What is certain is that there is no way back. Despite many challenges and barriers, child marriage is increasingly condemned by societies across Asia. Only by working together can we eliminate it once and for all.