September 27, 2016

Ending Child Marriage within a Generation—and ensuring the representation of girls everywhere

Written by Julie A. Cornell, Johnson & Johnson Global Community Impact

“At best, child marriage is a violation of human rights that denies thousands of girls their childhood. At worst, it is a scourge that is killing the world’s girls.”

 – Darren Walker, CEO, Ford Foundation

One in every three girls worldwide is forced into marriage before the age of 18. Take a moment for that to sink in. Child marriage is a human rights crisis and violation that denies girls all over the world their right to security, health, and well-being. While progress is being made, the practice is still far too common in many parts of the world.

On Tuesday, September 20, Ford Foundation, Girls Not Brides, and NoVo Foundation co-hosted an event to launch It Takes A Movement: Reflecting on Five Years of Progress Toward Ending Child Marriage, a progress report documenting the strides that have been made across multiple sectors to end child marriage. Girls Not Brides Chair, Mabel van Oranje, moderated a panel discussion to celebrate the inclusion of child marriage in the SDGs and to underscore the urgent need to end the practice. After all, this is not just about preventing a union between a young girl and an older man. It’s about restoring girls’ access to a quality education and health care, protecting them from gender-based violence, delaying pregnancy, and so much more.

“Years ago, other issues like female genital cutting and access to school largely overshadowed child marriage,” reflected panelist Mary Robinson of The Elders.  “We have successfully put child marriage on the SDG agenda, which has at last brought attention to this issue.”

While the increase in global visibility is an important milestone, it is critical to remain focused on finding, implementing, and evaluating solutions to end child marriage. Pamela Shifman, Executive Director of the NoVo Foundation, noted that “supporting a vibrant independent feminist movement” is a catalytic solution that enables communities to shift the harmful gender norms that are root causes of child marriage. The panelists agreed that grassroots efforts will effect the most change during the remaining years of the SDGs, and that girls must be part of program implementation on the ground, as well as decision-making at the top.

The following day, I had the opportunity to meet with Memory Banda, a leading advocate against child marriage in Malawi, and member of Let Girls Lead and the Girls Empowerment Network. As discussed in her TED talk and at CGI’s Girl, Uninterrupted plenary session, Memory again told the story of how she confronted her village chiefs to end sexual initiation camps, which often resulted in young girls becoming pregnant and dropping out of school. The secret to her success? “I was not alone. When I met with the tribal leader, I was with a large coalition of young women,” Memory recalls. “And it did not take one meeting, but many meetings to keep pressing our point.” Alongside other girl advocates, her efforts led to the end of sexual initiation camps all together in her village. Armed with the experience and knowledge of the power girls can wield when they ban together and are supported by their communities, Memory continues to fiercely advocate for girls’ rights. She serves as a living example of what a young woman can accomplish when she has control over her future.

As we continue to tackle child marriage, it is crucial to hear and incorporate the voices of those who have lived these issues firsthand and who have worked tirelessly to transform their communities to be healthier places for girls to live and thrive. We must put girls in the driver’s seat and give them a meaningful role at decision-making tables from the village to the UN General Assembly. As we look ahead to the fifth celebration of the International Day of the Girl Child, let’s remember that the most important voice we need to listen to is the girl herself.