Emma Jackson, November 14, 2017
In October 2017, the International Association on Adolescent Health (IAAH)
held their 11th World Congress on Adolescent Health in New Delhi, India, called
Investing in Adolescent Health: The Future is Now.
The conference featured researchers from all over the world, local and
international global public health organizations and NGOs, the Indian Health
Ministry, and most importantly, adolescents.
Indeed, adolescence is an ideal time to change harmful social norms, as it is
a time of development, exploration, and questioning. It is also a challenging
time for millions of adolescent girls who face the prospect of child marriage.
I attended three panels on child marriage, the importance of empowering
adolescent and married girls, and the value of community-based programme, each
providing thought-provoking insights into how to tackle child marriage. Here are
my six takeaways:
1. We cannot end child marriage without changing social norms
Social norms around women and girls drive child marriage. It is therefore
essential to involve families, including parents and in-laws, and the whole
community in programmes to end child marriage. If we do not address harmful
underlying social norms, sustainable change is not possible.
A case study from a cash transfer programme in Zomba, Malawi, shows how
important social norms are to achieve long-term impact. Families that received
cash transfers showed significant changes in the short term, such as more school
attendance, less child marriage, delayed first births, and less HIV.
Yet just two years after the cash transfers stopped, research suggests much of this progress was lost. Social norms
that present educated girls as less marriageable persisted, leaving girls with a
few options outside of marriage.
2. Involve men and boys in solutions
Boys also need safe spaces, positive role models, and support. They are
invariably involved in the issue of child marriage, so they are key players in
changing social norms
3. Girls need alternatives to marrying early
Even if girls do stay in school and do not marry before age 18, what will
they do after secondary school ends? If there are few employment opportunities
and no way to pay for higher education, girls are left without options outside
Niloy Mitter, from Tata Corporate Social Responsibility, shared an example of
what's working to give girls alternatives. In their child marriage prevention programme, girls train and go on to
work as nurses. This ensures they have an income, skills and a profession
instead of marrying before 18.
We must also make sure that vocational trainings do not enforce existing
gender roles, for example exclusively teaching girls gendered skills such as
sewing or cooking.
4. Girls have rights, not only "value"
Girls have rights, not just value or usefulness to others. Sonali Khan,
Country Director, India for Breakthrough said:
"We oftentimes only speak of girls in terms of their value. Their value
to us, to their parents, to their society. I would like to move away from this
terminology and instead look at it from a rights perspective. Girls have the
right to an education, the right to their bodies, and the right to not be
subjected to violence."
Girls have the right to an education, the right to their bodies, and the
right to not be subjected to violence.
5. Married girls need support
We cannot forget about the girls who have already been married, and who need
just as much, if not more, support and empowerment. Findings from one of the
panels was that girls who married early were less satisfied with the program.
Girls wanted more services and information on the negative effects of child
For more information, download the reports on programs in Ethiopia and India.
6. Better data will help us understand what works to end child
We need more rigorous evaluations of community-based child marriage
prevention program, and prevention program in general. This will help us
understand what's working so as to end child marriage quickly and effectively.
As a researcher and advocate, I felt invigorated attending the World Congress
on Adolescent Health, which strengthened my dedication to empower women and
girls globally. I hope these six themes can help us find better solutions to end
child marriage in the coming years.