There’s no one solution to child marriage, a practice which hurts women and their communities.
Image by Fir0002 via Wikimedia Commons
This spring, the United Nations Human Rights Commission issued a resolution calling for the end of child, early, and forced marriages worldwide as inherently abusive practices. Statements like this are usually an invitation to reinvigorate interest in innovations that address some of the world’s entrenched but neglected social ailments. But for some observers this resolution was just a reminder of how long we’ve been waging a proactive war against these practices to limited effect—especially when it comes to child marriage. For years niche organizations like Girls Not Brides and wider outfits like USAID have promoted everything from legal reforms to economic incentives to community and child education programs. The UN, via UNICEF, even had a full-fledged campaign against child marriage all the way back in 2001. Yet despite some mild gains over the last few decades, we’ve had trouble proving the efficacy of existing programs and rooting child marriages out of many cultures where it seems particularly entrenched.
Yet anti-child marriage advocacy may be on the verge of a big shift thanks to a new study, out last month from the health and social justice nonprofit Population Council. Analyzing the success of a variety of interventions in African regions with some of the world’s highest child marriage rates, they’ve started assembling an unprecedented evidence-based guide proving that you can achieve a deep social impact even where these practices seem totally entrenched—and that you can do so without a major investment of resources. One of the most effective interventions you can bring into these communities to increase marriage ages and overall community wellbeing, they found, is goats.
Saying you can mitigate child marriage (at least partially) with goats may make it sound like a flippant issue, but it is most certainly not. Whether culturally normal or not, child marriages lead to a host of problems for young girls (and less commonly, boys). Chief among those is unwanted sexual contact—up to 95 percent of child brides don’t know their spouse, up to 85 percent are surprised by a sudden marriage, and in parts of sub-Saharan Africa up to two-thirds have not yet started menstruating when they wind up with their husbands. Much of this contact is tantamount to rape, statutory or otherwise, leading to longstanding mental health issues and often, unwanted pregnancies, which are 75 percent more likely to lead to deaths in women under the age of 20. Those abandoned when these often-unstable relationships break up become socially isolated. And no matter whether a girl stays in or leaves a marriage, her chances of attaining an education and contributing to the wealth of her family or wider community are greatly diminished.
This isn’t just some niche problem on the fringes of the modern world either. Up to 700 million women (and 156 million men) today were married before age 18. That number may grow to 1.2 billion women by 2050 if the practice is not curtailed, as every year 15 million more underage girls have the knot forcibly tied for them. Across the developing world, about a third of all girls are married by age 18, and a ninth are married by age 15. But in some nations (like Afghanistan, Bangladesh, the Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea, Mali, Mozambique, Nepal, Nigeria, and Uganda) child marriages affect over half of all girls.
While you wouldn’t know it looking at those numbers, there has been a decrease in child marriages over the past 30 years. Unfortunately, it’s been least pronounced in the world’s poorest areas—those most fragile to the loss of productive potential and health strains borne by the practice. And even when stern laws are enacted against child marriage in these communities, the practice is often just kept under wraps among approving compatriots, perpetuating the woes of the system even more clandestinely. It’s enough to make some observers in the world speculate that child marriage is irrevocably entrenched in some areas.
Drawings by Syrian refugee girls promote the prevention of child marriage. Image by DFID - UK Department for International Development via Wikimedia Commons
Within this conceptual environment, a few years ago the Population Council set out to test existing modes of intervention and see just how efficient they actually were. After two years working in Berhane Hewan, Ethiopia, they found that their interventions had reduced child marriages by 90 percent and increased continued education and family planning amongst girls by a factor of three. But they weren’t sure which elements of the interventions worked for which families and how, so they set up a new three-year project, the results of which are the subject of their recent report. To verify their findings and check the efficiency of each component not just in one, but in multiple poor communities with entrenched child marriage traditions, they set up operations in the Amhara region of Ethiopia, Cascades region of Burkina Faso, and Tabora region of Tanzania. Each community received a mixture of economic incentives to delay marriage (in the form of livestock, often used as a dowry item incentivizing child marriages in struggling families), community conversations on the benefits of delaying marriage, and school supplies for girls.
Although the final results of their work in Burkina Faso will not be compiled for another year, as of this summer the their research found the following: In Ethiopia, community conversations reduced child marriages by two-thirds and providing schools supplies reduced the practice by 94 percent among girls aged 12 to 14. Meanwhile giving families two chickens a year reduced child marriages by one-half and mixing all three interventions together reduced the practice by two-thirds amongst girls aged 15 to 17. In Tanzania though, despite some positive effects, most interventions didn’t significantly make a dent in child marriages in girls aged 12 to 14, but providing families with two goats a year did reduce the practice by two-thirds amongst girls aged 15 to 17. And that’s where the goats come in—providing families in areas where the practice is most entrenched with the economic leeway to duck the pressures that lead to child marriage.
This wasn’t the first study to show that interventions, including those involving livestock as an incentive, can work. In many ways, this work just supports the longstanding notion that families are willing to delay child marriages, especially when they know the downsides, as long as they have the means to do so and a productive place to send their girls for education. (The role poverty and insecurity play in child marriages has been demonstrated amongst Syrian refugees since 2013, when worsening conditions led to a spike in the practice seeking aid from coercive actors.)
But unlike many studies, this new work shows that such interventions can act rapidly even in the most entrenched areas. It also shows that you don’t need to throw the whole book of interventions at a single region. Instead specific, individual interventions should be targeted at different groups living in different situations. This type of targeting can help activists make strong economic arguments to national governments and international bodies to support lithe and effective programs. (Providing school supplies cost $17 and $22 per girl per year in Ethiopia and Tanzania, while providing conversations cost $30 and $11, livestock cost $32 and $107, and all three interventions cost $44 and $117 respectively, which is not a whole lot of money.) This type of hard data on efficacy, coupled with existing data on the woes of child marriage and benefits of educated women staying in a workforce and local economy, can convince both national and community leaders to take a chance on serious interventions they may have scoffed at in the past.
Unfortunately, the data and insights provided by the Population Council aren’t a cure-all. There are some families, for instance, for which child marriages are a matter of honor and culture more than economics, so these types of interventions and arguments won’t do much to dissuade them. But if the Population Council’s work and models can help to at least stabilize or reduce the ultimate number of girls married off as children in the world, then that’s a definitive good that we ought to explore.