Lifting the Veil: Expert Perspectives on Ending Child Marriage

Expert panel at "Lifting the Veil: Expert Meeting on Child Marriage."

Experts and advocates gathered at the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs on October 7 with the shared goal of ending child marriage. The daylong meeting, entitled “Lifting the Veil,” highlighted evidence-based results and lessons learned from work around the world to prevent the practice.

Giovanna Lauro, Promundo’s Deputy Director of International Programs, joined a panel discussion with Satvika Chalasani (UNFPA), Sajeda Amin (Population Council), Suzanne Petroni (ICRW), and Anju Malhotra (UNICEF) to discuss strategies that have been proven to work in preventing child marriage – including engaging men and boys. Participants discussed positive alternatives to child marriage, transformations in perspectives and norms, and methods to take change to scale.

The experts shared some additional insights in an interview after the panel:

What is your personal drive for wanting to contribute to the prevention of child marriage?

Giovanna: “It is the universality of the practice that has driven my interest in researching this topic. We often think about child marriage as something that happens in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, yet it is far from eradicated in Europe and the Americas. In Europe, countries with the highest rates of early marriage include Georgia, Turkey, and Ukraine. In Britain and France, it is estimated that at least 10 percent of adolescents marry before the age of 18. As for Latin America, Brazil – a country generally not associated with child marriage – has the third highest number of married girls (18 and under) in the world. According to a 2010 census, almost 90,000 children.”

Suzanne: “I’ve worked in the sexual and reproductive health and rights field for 20 years and especially focused on adolescents. At some point I realized many of the challenges adolescent girls face in regard to their sexual and reproductive health are actually greater in marriage. In many settings the parents think marriage is a way to protect girls from sexual violence, to protect their virginity,
or to protect them from sexual behavior and early pregnancy. But forced marriage is not protective. It actually allows for more violence and unwanted sex. I see addressing the issue of child marriage as a way to advance girls’ overall sexual rights and health.”

What do you think is currently the most interesting insight into ways of tackling child marriage?

Giovanna: “We need to research and work on the demand side of marriage – men’s and boys’ perceptions of marriage. It’s not enough to change what men and boys think is the right age to marry. We need to change the values they attribute to being a boy or girl. What are the qualities of a good man? Being the breadwinner is one of the first things boys or young men say. We try to instill more focus 
on caregiving, on empathy and nurturing. And we need to start working with boys when they are still at school and see girls every day, as peers. But we also have to work with their parents or caregivers to reinforce the message. That is also a matter of safety. If we change the points of view of the boys, but the parents think very differently, it puts the boys in danger.”

Sajeda: “Normally we do not
 think of something such as job opportunity to have an immediate effect on child marriage. But in India we have found that just by providing information about jobs for women, we can have a major effect on young girls of 12 to 15 years of age. This kind of information has a much greater effect than talking to them on, say, gender rights or sexual and reproductive health. Health for many girls is not their worry. Poverty is.”

Suzanne: “One thing that we would love to research further at ICRW is what impact reaching out to married girls can have on child marriage prevention. In Ethiopia’s rural Amhara region, CARE-Ethiopia worked with 5,000 girls aged between 10 and 19 who were already married, widowed, or divorced. The program provided opportunities for these girls to meet other girls, learn about sexual and reproductive health, as well as how to earn an income and save money. And, what we found is that not only did they themselves benefit, they also brought this back to 
their households. The husbands recognized the value of girls being educated, and talked about it within the communities. And, because of all of this, a number of planned weddings among adolescent girls were postponed. So, meeting the needs of already married girls helps them serve as role models for unmarried girls or girls about to marry.”

What is the most promising program tackling child marriage you know?

Satvika: “In Niger, the country with the highest number of child marriages in the world and by far the poorest, UNFPA is working on a girl-centered program and has reached more than 10,000 girls. This program is working alongside a national strategy on teenage pregnancy. They go hand in hand. I find it promising because it demonstrates a significant increase in sense of agency, and 59 girls have said ‘no’ to their planned wedding. I’m a little biased, of course, because it’s our own program. But I find it important to mention it, because I feel West Africa is not talked about enough. It’s a neglected area for girls’ programming. In part, for a simple reason: that it’s francophone.”

What was your most unforgettable experience, while in the field?

Suzanne: “I immediately have to think of Malala, at the Girl Summit in London last year. Malala sat on stage. At 17 years old, she is so profound. She talked about social norms and culture. Culture is not God-given, she said, but man-made, and can therefore be changed. She sat
 next to Sheikh Hasina, the female prime minister of Bangladesh, who on that day made a promise to 
end child marriage in a generation in her country. But then she went home and announced they were going to lower the marriageable age from 18 to 16 years. That way she could reduce the number of child marriages. They could forget about the 16- and 17-year-olds. It was a duplicitous act. She said one thing but meant another. And watching this dichotomy – this senior politician who gave a speech, but didn’t mean it, and the young Malala who could so powerfully make the case – this was the power of a girl to spark change.”

Giovanna: “I was particularly struck by the findings of an exploratory research study on child marriage we recently conducted in Brazil. One of the findings from the field that will stay with me for a long time is that girls in some settings may exercise more agency than it is generally acknowledged – albeit within the context of very limited opportunities – when it comes to deciding to enter marriage. A 14-year-old told us how she regretted having married at 13, but she asked what other choices did she have. She would have ended up as her sister, who works as a prostitute. This type of agency stands in sharp contrast to stereotypical images of child brides, opening up the possibility that girls may not always be only passive victims. It is important to further explore the nuances of girls’ agency and understanding the reasons leading them to choose marriage over other options.”

Learn more about the results of “Lifting the Veil” here.

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