5 Key Takeaways on Ending Child Marriage from the Women Deliver Conference

From May 16 to 19 this year, advocates from around the world are coming together in Copenhagen for the Women Deliver conference. As they work to improve the lives of women and girls, we’re spotlighting their work and experiences here on the Ms. blog.

This was my first Women Deliver conference. To see the focus include girls this year and to hear global leaders, time and again, raise up girls as one of our most valuable resources is incredible. It has been extraordinary to dive in with my colleagues on new solutions and innovative thinking and to refuel our tanks as we resolve to keep this work going. As the conference continues, I am looking forward to seeing even more ways the issues Girl Up and the girl leaders of our global movement care about continue to rise to the forefront of the conversation.

For me, Girl Up, and so many of my peers, child marriage remains one of the great human rights injustices for girls and one of the great barriers to the advancement of the world’s agenda. And so, here are my five key takeaways and highlights on child marriage from this global conference. (Consider it a Women Deliver cheat sheet!)

Bossena (blue t-shirt) got married when she was 15.
Bossena (blue t-shirt) got married when she was 15.

#1: The strategies to end child marriage are varied.

Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda of World YWCA recommends three key steps:

  • Mobilizing parliamentarians and national government is critical, as is focusing on unlocking resources and financing programs that not only prevent marriage, but also support married and parenting adolescent girls.
  • This work needs coordinated community level engagement. It needs to be multi-generational and we need to shift the role of families and the attitudes toward girls within families.
  • We need the media to continue to tell the story of child marriage to change attitudes and build pressure for change without re-victimizing the girls who are married.

#2: We need to prioritize addressing child marriage in emergency settings.

As we experience the greatest refugee crisis the world has seen since World War II, the issue of child marriage has doubled and tripled in these fragile states, where it may have already been a pressing issue. All the current challenges that affect girls are exponentially increased in conflict settings, in fragile states, while fleeing this unrest and once they reach temporary refugee settlements. Girls are most concerned about safety and parents are turning back to child marriage as an intervention to protect their daughters.

As resources are scarce and national leaders argue over budget priorities, we risk losing an entire generation of girls and boys who aren’t in school. Boys will become vulnerable to radicalization. Girls who will lose their childhoods because early marriage seems to be the only viable solution to their protection.

#3: Ending child marriage will help the global community deliver on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

As we look across the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and the multitude of goals and indicators the world is working to achieve, we see a direct correlation between early pregnancy rates and related maternal mortality rates for adolescents, and we can also see the higher rates of HIV in girls who are married early. Girls have no choice without reproductive health information, no voice with their older husbands on when and how often they get pregnant and no information on whether they are risk of being infected by HIV from these husbands.

Poverty leads them into child marriage. Poverty leaves them no choices.

If we end child marriage globally, we will reduce early pregnancy, reduce maternal and infant deaths and reduce the rates of HIV infection in girls. This is a global health crisis.

Girls who are married aren’t in school; girls who are still in school are at less risk of early marriage. Reducing child marriage will increase enrollment and completion rates of school. Education is the key and the correlation between this two topics couldn’t be stronger.

In addition, girls in early marriages are, at their core, victims of gender and sexual based violence. The sheer nature of their marriage perpetuates an unwelcome relationship. The rates of violence within marriages can be some of the highest and these young girls enter these marriages on an unequal footing from the beginning—forced and significantly younger than their partners. Ending child marriage will significantly reduce violence against girls.

Child marriage is an issue that is specifically addressed and measured in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, but it is an issue that transcends across goals and across development sectors.

#4: We need to hold governments accountable and ensure the rule of law.

Many laws and policies have changed in countries recently; early marriage is effectively illegal around the world, but in many countries these laws are not enforced. This leads to an overwhelming sense of impunity. There is no accountability. There are no ramifications for men who marry underage girls, for parents who approve and arrange these unions. The laws stand as paper, and the issue continues in real life.

When government officials themselves to marry 12-year-old girls, as has happened in Nigeria recently, it implies that these laws aren’t real and they don’t need to be followed. In countries like India where the legal age of marriage is 18, an illegal marriage stands as a valid marriage once it is performed. It’s illegal—and yet legally valid. Where is the justice, and where is the argument to abide by these laws?

#5: We must ensure boys and men are engaged in ending child marriage.

I was struck by Nyaradzayi’s view of men in the child marriage epidemic. She puts them in three categories:

  • Men with responsibility—parliamentarians, local government officials, village chiefs, and fathers—need to make the right decisions. We need to shift our discourse from men’s involvement to men’s responsibility and accountability.
  • Men as predators need to be seen as criminals and we have to address the issue of Justice. Girls need social protections when they report illegal child marriages—they need their rights upheld.
  • Boys, future men, need to be re-socialized to shift thinking. There needs to be stronger tie between awareness, advocacy and behavior among boys. They need to understand that they it’s not enough to stand up for their sisters— and then enter into their own illegal marriages themselves.

Hearing from multiple panels and multiple speakers at the conference, there’s no question about the value of the girl. I am inspired by the commitment, determination, and passion from all 5,500 attendees. One of my role models and a woman who really delivers—Mabel van Orange, chair of Girls Not Brides—shared a sentiment that gets at the heart of this issue: “A world that has child marriage will never be a world where girls and boys are equal, a world where women are equal to men.”

Photo courtesy of UK Department for International Development on Flickr and licensed under Creative Commons 3.0


Melissa Hillebrenner Kilby is the Director of Girl Up, a United Nations Foundation campaign that works to train and inspire teen girl leaders. Previously, Melissa was National Director for OP3 and worked for Hinsdale Hospital and the American Red Cross of Chicago. She is an active volunteer and coach with Girls on the Run of Washington DC. Melissa holds a Bachelor of Journalism in Strategic Communication from University of Missouri.