How Goats and School Supplies Aid the Fight Against Child Marriage

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.

Articles

He photographed Nazi atrocities and buried the negatives. The unearthed images are unforgettable.

He risked his life to leave a "historical record of our martyrdom."

via Yad Vashem and Archive of Modern Conflict, 2007

In September 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland. By April 1940, the gates closed on the Lodz Ghetto, the second largest in the country after Warsaw.

Throughout the war, over 210,000 people would be imprisoned in Lodz.

Among those held captive was Henryk Ross. He was a Jewish sports photographer before the Nazi invasion and worked for the the ghetto's Department of Statistics during the war. As part of his official job, he took identification photos of the prisoners and propaganda shots of Lodz' textile and leather factories.

Keep Reading Show less
Communities
via Imgur

Every few years there's something that goes mega viral because people can't decide what it is.

There was the famous "is it blue and black, or white and gold" dress?

There was the audio recording that said either "yanny" or "Laurel."

Keep Reading Show less
Viral


Rochester NY Airport Security passing insulting notes to travelers caught on tape www.youtube.com

Neil Strassner was just passing through airport security, something he does on a weekly basis as part of his job. That's when a contract airport security employee handed him a small piece of folded cardboard. Strassner, 40, took the paper and continued on his way. He only paused when he heard the security employee shouting back at him, "You going to open the note?"

When he unfolded the small piece of paper, Strassner was greeted with an unprompted insult. "You ugly!!!"

According to Strassner, and in newly released CCTV of the incident, the woman who handed him the note began laughing loudly.

Keep Reading Show less
popular
Creative Commons

National Tell a Joke Day dates back to 1944 when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was having a meeting with Vice-President, Henry Wallace. The two men were tired and depressed due to the stress caused by leading a country through world war.

During a lull in the meeting, Wallace said, "Frank, to cheer you up I have a joke I'd like to share."

"Let's have it, Henry," Roosevelt replied while ashing his cigarette.

"Why did the chicken cross the road?" Wallace asked. "Not sure," Roosevelt replied.

"To get to the other side," Wallace responded.

Roosevelt laughed so hard that the bourbon he was drinking sprayed out of his nose and onto the floor of the oval office.

Keep Reading Show less
Culture
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Coal mining is on the decline, leaving many coal miners in West Virginia without jobs. The Mine Safety and Health Administration says there are about 55,000 positions, and just 13,000 of those jobs are in West Virginia. The dwindling amount of work is leaving some struggling to make a living, but the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective is giving those coal miners a way to find new jobs and make a supplemental income as coal mining diminishes.

The Appalachian Beekeeping Collective trains coal miners and other low-income residents in mining communities to keep bees. Some coal miners are getting retrained to work in the tech industry, however beekeeping allows coal miners to continue to work in a job that requires a similar skill set. "The older folks want to get back to work, but mining is never going to be like it was in the '60s and '70s, and there is nothing to fall back on, no other big industries here, so all of these folks need retraining," former coal miner James Scyphers told NPR. "Beekeeping is hands-on work, like mining, and requires on-the-job training. You need a good work ethic for both."

Keep Reading Show less
Business