Lessons on Child and forced marriage: reflections on progress towards global eradication

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One in five girls globally is married before her 18th birthday, representing 650 million girls. While this number is high, it has dropped significantly in the past 10 years, when the ratio was one in four. This is a serious breach of human rights – one that extends to within the borders of Australia.

Recently the largest-ever gathering on child marriage was held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia—The Global Meeting of Girls Not Brides: Global Partnership to End Child Marriage (The Global Meeting). 500 delegates from over 70 countries joined together over three days to connect, learn and strategise toward a common goal: allowing every girl, everywhere, to fulfil her potential. Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand’s Laura Vidal was the only delegate to participate from Australia and shares some of her insights.

A word on terminology—The Girls Not Brides Global Meeting used the term ‘child marriage’ exclusively to refer to marriages that take place under the age of 18 as per guiding international instruments. In the Australian context the term ‘forced marriage’ is used to define a marriage without consent regardless of age. For ease of reading and congruency with the aims of the Global Meeting the term ‘Child Marriage’ will be used—however the recommendations and approaches discussed are interchangeable.


On a positive and motivating note the first speaker of the conference, Anju Malhotra from UNICEF, shared that ‘rates of child marriage have declined at an accelerated pace—25 million marriages have been prevented in the past decade rendering the current global figure of women who have been married as children to 650 million’. Despite this pace it is still not fast enough if we want to reach the target of eliminating child marriage by 2030. At the current rate of decline we will still see 17% of girls, globally, married in 2020.

The challenges to addressing child marriage are vast, including the difficulties of translating commitments into action, the shrinking capacity that civil society has to act (including the way in which Governments are clamping down on how civil society organisations use foreign funding), funding and resource availability, and the perception that efforts to end child marriage are ‘going well’ which can lead to complacency.

Participating in the Global Meeting

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to share some of my work during the Global Meeting—particularly on Australia’s experience of criminalising forced marriage in 2013; and the risks and benefits to defining child marriage as slavery; a key theme that arose during my Churchill Fellowship research in 2017.

Before detailing some of the sessions I participated in, I will make one observation: there is a deep body of knowledge in the global effort to end child marriage which is scattered across regions, governments, civil society and communities. This knowledge is both formal and informal—some is documented, some is not. It became apparent to me during the Global Meeting that our best chance of addressing child marriage is to bring all of this knowledge together, at every level, to analyse and understand what interventions demonstrate a reduction in the practice. The current efforts by Girls Not Brides and others who are working on bringing this information together is of critical importance, although it is also an enormous and complex task. Additionally, we must find a way to measure our efforts for their impact and effectiveness. This will maximise resources, allow for learning from successes and challenges, and provide the best opportunity to replicate successful approaches where necessary and appropriate.

Few people understand how pervasive child marriage is globally.  Statistics courtesy UNICEF . 

Few people understand how pervasive child marriage is globally. Statistics courtesy UNICEF

Focus Session 1: The Value and Risks of Criminalisation: Building a Common Understanding

This session sought to draw out the various risks and benefits to using criminalisation as a tool to prevent child marriage, a common approach used by Governments around the world.
The speakers included:

·         Madhu Mehra—Executive Director of Partners for Law in Development (India)

·         Vimbai Ndonde—Legal Officer at Women and Law in Southern Africa (Zimbabwe)

·         Faith Mwangi-Powell—Global Director for the Girl Generation (Kenya)

The discussion highlighted the differing viewpoints on this approach, including those of session participants. While there were mixed opinions around the benefits and risks associated with criminalisation, the robust discussion did lead to a clear conclusion: while criminalisation sends a strong signal that the practice is not accepted, it also raises a series of questions about the impact and effectiveness toward changing attitudes and behaviours that will prevent the practice from occurring. With the recognition that forcing a person/child to marry is a reflection of gender inequality and relative powerlessness, legal tools and perspectives, whilst a necessary foundation, are a long way from addressing the cultural context and social complexities that underpin the practice. Therefore, criminalisation as tool cannot and should not be introduced in isolation. In considering the criminalisation of child marriage, governments and civil society must also provide a robust coordinated support framework for those that are impacted, and resources for a community-led strategy aimed at social norm change. The power and limitations of a criminal response is also evident in the Australian context.

Focus Session 2: Modern Slavery and Child Labour: Entry points for addressing child marriage

The Global Estimate on Modern Slavery by the International Labour Organisation and the Walk Free Foundation, including for the first time forced marriage as a practice of slavery, has drawn international attention to the link between forced marriage and slavery. This session included a discussion about the risks and consequences of this approach, with many participants remarking ‘it’s complicated.’ On a global scale this definition may have several unintended consequences, not least by creating an additional barrier for individuals at risk to come forward and seek the safety and support they need.

I presented alongside Seth Earn from AIDS Free World- USA and Maria-Eugenia Villareal of ECPAT Guatemala and we all shared different views. AIDS Free World presented a clear position that ‘all child marriage is child labour,’ and in the Guatemalan context child marriage is criminalised under human trafficking offences.

Laura Vidal shares her expertise on the global stage.

Laura Vidal shares her expertise on the global stage.

Further analysis is required to understand the intersection of child marriage and slavery. My own research findings indicate that not all child/forced marriage can be squarely defined as slavery, and if we take the 1956 Supplementary Convention on Slavery definition into account, loosely three pre-conditions must be present: either money is exchanged, or the individual is transferred from one spouse to another for ‘value’, or a wife is inherited by another person following the death of her husband. Indeed, some conduct such as forced labour or servitude may result from a child marriage which are unequivocally practices of slavery; however the question remains: ‘Is the very act of forcing somebody into a marriage considered slavery?’

In my view, it is important that we proceed with caution in framing child marriage explicitly as slavery. Our approach should always be centred on what we intend to achieve, and in many contexts the language of slavery alone creates a barrier toward attitude, behaviour and social norm change.

Key Themes

During the three days and over nearly 60 sessions there was an abundance of information shared, much of which is available online via Girls Not Brides. However, three key themes continued to arise across most if not all of the sessions.

1. Gender inequality is the driving force.

There is a shared understanding that child marriage is driven by gender inequality and patriarchal norms.  As has been said many times before, culture, religion and tradition are not at the centre of the practice and whilst they may be used to reinforce or justify the practice the overriding evidence is that until we translate commitments to gender inequality into action, child marriage will continue.

2. There is a need for coordinated and multi-sectoral approaches.

There were multiple sessions at the Global Meeting that explored different ways sectors collaborate, with a significant emphasis on ensuring comprehensive multi-sectoral approaches. Various approaches were represented at the meeting, including that of the World Health Organisation and the World Bank, which demonstrated the breadth of work happening globally. More importantly it showcased how deep the impact of child marriage is, and therefore how necessary it is that there is genuine multi-sectoral engagement — not just those groups focused on adolescent girls. To quote Mabel van Oranje, Chair of Girls Not Brides, “We need to start looking at adolescent girls as holistic individuals and ensure we are all working together to provide a comprehensive response.”

3. Youth and communities should be at the centre.

The first global meeting of  Girls not Brides: Global Partnership to End Child Marriage  is a watershed moment for furthering gender equality and protecting girls.

The first global meeting of Girls not Brides: Global Partnership to End Child Marriage is a watershed moment for furthering gender equality and protecting girls.

‘Nothing about us, without us’ was the strong message from the youth delegates at the Global Meeting—and too right they are!  Around 40% of the global population is aged between 16-24 years old; if we add those under 16 years old, young people comprise almost half of the global population. This is the largest number of young people the world has ever seen. With an issue like child marriage, the future is at stake; young people are at the core of the issue and need to be at the core of the solution. In the words of one of the youth delegates, “The world leaders alone cannot make the change we hope to see in the world, we need young people like us to make a change for the global community.” You can catch the session on meaningful youth engagement that was recorded live here.

A quick word on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—A Platform for Action.

Target 5.3 in the SDGs aims to eliminate all harmful practices such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilations’ by 2030. In addition to target 5.3, the elimination of child marriage will contribute to the achievement at least eight of the SDGs.* Globally, 193 countries, including Australia, have agreed to end child marriage by 2030 under their commitment to the SDGs. The SDGs are an important tool to drive action, hold governments to account for their commitments to girls, and track progress on ending child marriage. To date, the SDGs platform has not been specifically used to drive change regarding child marriage. However, it became clear during the Global Meeting that this framework is useful in underpinning efforts in this area, while also supporting attainment of several other key objectives. This is particularly important in supporting change due to the global commitment on the SDGs and the accountability structures that track improvements.

The Global Meeting was an opportunity to connect and share on human rights abuses that occur in Australia but also extend across national boundaries. It was also an opportunity to speak about things that are all too often considered taboo — taboos that continue to drive gender inequality and perpetuate child marriage. Australia doesn’t have a true picture of the number of people impacted by forced or child marriage; given its clandestine nature, reporting is low. We do know that the numbers are likely to be comparatively much lower to other regions in the world. Despite this, we cannot be complacent in our efforts to tackle this issue. Australia should and can be a place where child and forced marriage does not happen. We must use our resources, share our knowledge and grow our partnerships to ensure that we are not left behind in the eradication of child marriage by 2030.

* Goal 1- No Poverty; Goal 2- Zero Hunger; Goal 3- Good Health and Wellbeing; Goal 4- Inclusive and Quality Education; Goal 5- Gender Equality; Goal 8- Economic Growth; Goal 10- Reduce Inequalities; Goal 16- Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

This post is part of the Women's Policy Action Tank initiative to analyse government policy using a gendered lens. View our other policy analysis pieces here.