For young girls, lessons not weddings

Across India, charities and NGOs tackle the blight of child marriage

Usha Choudary speaks quickly. The India-based activist is anxious to share the scale and scope of the challenges she and others face in tackling the blight of child marriage.

In Choudary’s home state of Rajasthan the rate of child marriage is greater than the Indian average, a country with the highest absolute numbers of child brides anywhere in the world and where 47 per cent of girls are married before they turn 18. Choudary says that figure rises above 60 per cent in some districts of Rajasthan where she runs Vikalp Sansthan, an organisation she founded in 2004 to tackle the issue and empower girls to speak up for themselves.

“In our country child marriage is a very big problem,” explains Choudary, whose own family tried to force her into marriage at the age of 14. “We work with girls to empower them and encourage them to continue their education. We also fuel their dreams; because of their environment and the community attitude they do not always raise a voice for their dreams.”

There are plenty of issues for Choudary and her team to address, ranging from gender discrimination and poor enforcement of child marriage prevention laws, to access to education, poverty and domestic violence. Vikalp Sansthan’s 400 volunteers and 15 permanent staff reach out to schools and community groups, engaging directly with parents and trying to teach girls about their rights. Some of the biggest challenges lie within the communities and families themselves, who can exert great social pressure on the girls to push them into unwanted early marriages.

“We also work to give girls negotiation skills because they have to be able to negotiate with their parents and family about their rights and be able to say no to child marriage,” she says.

According to Choudary, Vikalp Sansthan has helped to prevent somewhere in the region of 8,000 child marriages since 2004 through a combination of empowerment, rights awareness and legal advocacy. The changes she has brought are a testament to her perseverance and determination, qualities she drew on when she resisted her own parents’ efforts to marry her off.

“I fought it. I said clearly I didn’t want that life, but when you are facing lots of violence you have no options,” she says. “I wanted to complete my education and also wanted to curb this violent chain. I wanted to do better for me and for my younger sister. That’s why I wanted to help.”

Child marriage is not just a challenge for India, it’s a global problem estimated to affect one in three girls under 18 across the developing world, according to Girls Not Brides. Made up of 500 or so partner organisations, including Vikalp Sansthan, Girls Not Brides is a collection of civil society organisations working to eradicate child marriage.

Its research suggests that Niger has the highest proportion of under-age brides with 76 per cent of girls married before they turn 18. In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), around one in five girls across the region are married before the age of 18. The situation varies across the region, with rates of child marriage ranging from 2 per cent in Algeria to 32 per cent in Yemen.

“The good news is that the MENA region has made the fastest progress in reducing child marriage, from 34 per cent to 18 per cent overall over the last three decades,” says Lakshmi Sundaram, executive director of Girls Not Brides.

It’s a problem that can be exacerbated by conflict and disaster. Girls Not Brides members working with Syrian refugee camps are reporting a marked increase in the number of married girls. Girls Not Brides member organisation Care International found that child marriage has increased alarmingly: between 2011 and 2014 the proportion of registered marriages where the bride was under 18 rose from 12 per cent to as high as 32 per cent.

In Nepal, Girls Not Brides is seeing rising instances of families marrying off their young daughters because they are not able to look after them after the devastating earthquakes that struck the country in April and May.

“Emergency situations are often the last straw for families who are already living on the brink of poverty,” says Sundaram. “Marrying off their daughters can seem like the only option when families are struggling to keep their children secure and provide for them.”

Sundaram believes donors, foundations and NGOs including a focus on child marriage in their funding and programmatic efforts on related issues such as education, girls’ empowerment and maternal and newborn health can help address the issue. At the start of October, Girls Not Brides launched its own #MyLifeAt15 campaign to help personalise the issue and to help bridge the gap between the donor community and the girls who are actually affected by child marriage.

“It’s important for us all to remember that these girls and women aren’t just goals or statistics,” says Sundaram. “They are individual human beings who should have the opportunity to make their aspirations a reality.”