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Addressing child marriage through innovation

POSTED September 14, 2020

Addressing child marriage through innovation

How we’re building a Centre of Excellence on gender and social inclusion in India to inform our work on child marriage around the world

By Fred Witteveen, CEO, ceo@childrenbelieve.ca

Fred standing in park

For some students, COVID-19 meant the end of a school year. For Meera,* 16, it meant a wedding announcement.

With school closures, the eager student’s 24-km bicycle ride to class in rural India became a memory. Her future disappeared with her parents’ seasonal jobs. Tradition, poverty, and the belief a husband would provide safety, spurred the family decision to send Meera into a child marriage in July.

Meera is not alone, especially in her homeland.

India has the largest number of child brides globally, accounting for one-third of the number worldwide, reports UNICEF.

It’s hard to believe, but the numbers are improving. It helps that the world is standing together for change with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls by 2030.

At Children Believe, we strongly believe no child should be married or denied the chance to get an education. We’re doing our part to contribute to that change, by breaking barriers to education, especially for girls. Our India team, which specializes in gender and social inclusion, has already made significant progress, finding innovative ways to address a practice rooted in tradition.

A big step in progress came with the introduction of our child-friendly accountability project. This armed children with information about their rights and called on parents, guardians and other community members to protect those rights.

A key goal of the project was to raise awareness about the harmful effects of child marriages, engaging young people in the process. In one activity, children performed plays in 32 villages in India, reaching more than 9,000 people with their messages about the risks associated with early, forced marriage.

Many parents from marginalized sections of society in rural areas where we launched this project, followed traditions, marrying their daughters off young, because the dowry paid by the girl’s family would be less, especially if she married someone within the family circle. So, change took time.

But community members slowly began to see how child marriage was a violation of human rights, restricting a girl’s access to healthcare and education, which would give her opportunity. It became more evident how the practice exposed girls to violence and put them at risk for early pregnancies, complications and maternal mortality.

Involving children in change made a difference. Child clubs were formed, young people began to speak up for their rights and parents began to change how they felt about child marriage.

Women Counting Pennies

That was just one project, but the initiatives we’ve launched to reduce child marriage have been many, from sharing videos with messages about the harmful impacts of child marriage to a national consultation to a mandate to work with girls and boys to empower them to make change for themselves and their peers.

Although many people think of child marriage as a female problem, it’s important we don’t leave boys out of the conversation. Bayanna, 15, president of a local child-led organization modelled after the Indian parliamentary system, vowed to end child marriages in his community. In fact, many of his peers have already taken oaths, saying they won’t marry a girl under the age of 18. “I want the girls in my community to be educated and not to get married at 12 or 13,” he told us.

As a result of our approach, 172 child marriages were stopped and 676 villages as well as 1,023 schools pledged to create child-marriage free villages, following one three-month awareness campaign about the dangers of child marriage.

Child marriage is a challenging issue. Although laws are in place in India, there are gaps in policy, practice and implementation. Systematic change is also slow and complicated by issues such as COVID-19 and the collaboration needed from multiple stakeholders. But, there’s amazing stories of progress to keep us focused on initiatives making a difference:

  • promoting girls’ leadership within clubs and making boys part of the change
  • empowering children, especially girls, to speak up and protect their rights
  • building strong communities with networks to end local child marriages
  • organizing campaigns to influence community practices and government
  • promoting girls’ education
  • working with local government to build social protection for girls in need

We intend to continue our work — joining with specialized networks such as Girls Not Brides, a working group of the South Asia Initiative to Ending Violence Against Children as well as other local networks and civil-society organizations — and make real change. Our teams in India and Africa will also continue to share knowledge so more children can be empowered to hold parents, guardians, teachers and lawmakers to account.

That’s what Meera’s community did.

That’s right. The sad story with which I began my blog had a happy ending, because Meera was part of a community of empowered young people. Her peers helped save their friend from an early, forced marriage, calling the local child help line. Our partner staff, police and a local teacher stopped the wedding, counselling Meera’s parents, whom, as a result, vowed not to send their daughter into a child marriage.

There are many stories about children and youth like Meera. They’re working together to stop child marriages and fight for their right to go to school and get an education.

Meera is part of the change: “I will stop child marriages, and help those who are victimized,” she bravely told us.

To learn more about how you can provide support to girls who have become more susceptible to child marriages during the pandemic, visit childrenbelieve.ca/covid-19.

*Name changed for child’s protection

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ABOUT CHILDREN BELIEVE (formerly Christian Children's Fund of Canada):

Children Believe works globally to empower children to dream fearlessly, stand up for what they believe in — and be heard. For 60 years, we’ve brought together brave young dreamers, caring supporters and partners, and unabashed idealists. Together, we’re driven by a common belief: creating access to education — inside and outside of classrooms — is the most powerful tool children can use to change their world.

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