Girls Lead: Ending child marriage during COVID-19

by 12th Jun 2020
Tawhida Haq Mitu, a young woman in Bangladesh who has participated in a CARE training programme Tawhida Haq Mitu, a young woman in Bangladesh who has participated in a CARE training programme

Governments, NGOs, and society at large must work towards the end of child marriage, but it is also critical to recognise the power of girls to lead the way to end this practice in their own communities. UNFPA estimates that 13 million more child marriages could take place by 2030 than would have prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, programmes that work to end child marriage are unable to operate due to shelter-in-place directives. However, girl activists, within their own communities, are able to subversively challenge the norms and attitudes that put them at risk for child marriage.

CARE’s Tipping Point Initiative, which focuses on addressing the root causes of child marriage in Nepal and Bangladesh, trained girl activists and their communities earlier this year and continues to remotely support girl-led change.

Poverty, education, and norms

As economies come to a halt due to restrictions and lockdowns, many income streams are no longer available to vulnerable communities. In extreme scarcity, marriages and even informal unions for adolescent girls may seem to be the only option to relieve economic burdens and to have their basic needs met.

While poverty is a contributing factor to the practice of child marriage, it is underpinned by gender and social norms which place unequal value on the lives of women and girls in comparison to men and boys. Within societies where child marriage is common, perceptions of the opportunities for girls’ futures beyond marriage are limited. If there were more visible opportunities for girls to grow up to earn a decent income – and social norms supported them to pursue these opportunities – then marrying a girl would not seem necessary for survival.

There is also an undeniable correlation between school dropouts and child marriage. As schools around the world switch to distance learning modalities or close entirely, girls are the ones who suffer most. Distance learning is likely going to be more difficult for girls: data on the gender digital divide demonstrates that access to internet and information communication technology in the global South, and by proxy, the skills to use such technology, are greater for men and boys than women and girls. Furthermore, gendered social norms dictate that girls have increased care responsibilities at home; these will likely increase as family members become ill, thus further limiting their time for schoolwork.

Enable activism

Girl activists need access to information about their rights, opportunities to build collective power with other girls, the potential for future economic gains, and financial literacy in order to change inequitable social norms that perpetuate child marriage. Before the pandemic, in addition to training girl activists and their allies, Tipping Point facilitated weekly sessions on gender inequity and sexual and reproductive health and promoted financial literacy through adolescent Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs), which allow space for girls to save together while building a foundation business skills. The initiative also engaged adolescents and their parents in inter-generational dialogues and community events that challenge the gendered division of labour and mobility and communication control of girls. These components of the programme helped to create an enabling environment for the girl activists to create change. Activist girls, adequately equipped with opportunities to connect and advocate, can increase their access to technology and education, and shift the inequitable norms that lead to child marriage.

Cause for hope

Despite the very real vulnerabilities experienced by adolescent girls as a result of COVID-19, we also have cause for hope. Most significantly, a disruption such as COVID-19 offers the opportunity to shift gender norms and relations to be more equitable, which we know can positively affect the incidences of gender-based violence, including child marriage. This will not happen without effort, and activists, such as those trained by Tipping Point, can play a lead role in this process.

With more men being at home consistently, there is an opportunity for norms around the household division of labour and unpaid care work to become more equal – including water collection and work related to hygiene practices. Additionally, the economic hardship caused by the pandemic could lead to more acceptance from conservative societies for women to participate in income-generating activities, which has the potential to shift power in a positive way and demonstrates alternative futures and opportunities for girls outside of marriage.

Tipping Point has already seen how, with some support, adolescent girls can come together to create change. We are working with the girls in Tipping Point villages through mobile devices as much as possible to support them in continuing to create change, while still being mindful to mitigate the risk of domestic violence facing activists, women, and girls around the world.

The role of duty-bearers

While girls have an important leadership role in advocating for the end of child marriage, they should not be expected to do it alone. It is the duty of governments and society to create an enabling environment for girls’ rights to be fulfilled.

In the immediate term, gender-based violence prevention, mitigation and case management (including for child marriage) should be incorporated into national and international response plans for COVID-19, as we know that the ‘shadow pandemic’ of gender-based violence is worsening as a result of lockdowns. This includes addressing potential barriers to services for adolescent girls and women and working to reduce the risk of girls dropping out of school now.

If we want to stop child marriage permanently, we must address its root causes by shifting the social norms that perpetuate gender inequality and gender-based violence, including child marriage. We are learning, now more than ever, that the best solutions come from the people who are most affected by a problem. So, even after the pandemic, we should remember that adolescent girls can and should lead the way in shifting norms. As an international community, we must take our role seriously to support them.

Tirzah Brown

I joined CARE in 2018 and I have appreciated working with people so passionate about gender equality. Before CARE, I worked for local organizations, where I designed and operated a career mentorship program for people who immigrated as refugees or asylum seekers to the United States and a trauma-informed adult education program for survivors of sex trafficking or sexual exploitation. When I am not working, I enjoy volunteering at church and with local organizations that mentor adolescent girls. One exciting thing I’ve done lately is attend a Social Analysis and Action training hosted by CARE Kenya, where I met field facilitators with an incredible amount of resilience and motivation to make the world a more just, safe place.