29. Building a movement to end child marriage

Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage

A human rights violation that leaves girls behind

Every year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18 (UNCF, 2018[1]). Rooted in gender inequality, child marriage1 is a gross human rights violation that continues to leave girls behind - especially those from poor, rural, vulnerable and disadvantaged populations. It denies girls their rights to health, education and opportunity, while undermining the achievement of half of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and holding back economies (Wodon et al., 2017[2]). Yet until recently child marriage was widely considered taboo, and there were limited efforts to tackle it.

Partnering to break the silence around child marriage

Child marriage has complex and varied drivers and consequences. A multi-stakeholder, multi-sector approach is thus required to address it. This is one of the reasons why, in 2011, The Elders launched Girls Not Brides as a global civil society partnership to end child marriage and help girls achieve their full potential (Girls not Brides, 2016[3]). Today, Girls Not Brides counts over 1 000 members from 96 countries.

Working together with UN agencies, donors and governments, Girls Not Brides members have broken the silence. Child marriage was the theme of the first International Day of the Girl Child in 2012; it is included in the SDGs; and it is the focus of three UN resolutions2 co-sponsored by over 100 countries. There is now an African Union campaign focused on ending child marriage, commitments from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, and progress within the Commonwealth and the Francophonie.

As of mid-2017, over 30 countries in Africa and Asia had or were developing a national strategy or action plan to end child marriage, and 17 countries had established 18 years as the legal age of marriage without exception (Girls not Brides, 2017[4]). In many of these countries, Girls Not Brides National Partnerships have helped this progress.3 For example, members in Nepal were supported in policy analysis, advocacy and strategic planning to end child marriage. The group then worked with the government of Nepal on the development of a National Strategy to End Child Marriage, and became instrumental in supporting its implementation planning at national and sub-national levels.

Girls Not Brides has also worked to create a common understanding of how to end child marriage. In 2014, 150 members and partners came together to develop a Theory of Change4 which outlines the elements of an effective and context-specific response. These elements include support at the level of the girl herself, comprehensive services for adolescent girls, initiatives to change attitudes and behaviours of families and communities, and effective laws and policies. Girls Not Brides is now focusing on how to best support the work of community-based organisations, which have a unique ability to reach the most marginalised girls, but are often ignored in global development discussions.5

Building on the strengths of partners and learning how to best work together

Girls Not Brides operates through diversity, partnership and collective action. The progress achieved so far has resulted from collaborative efforts between international, national and local civil society organisations; girls already married or at risk of being married; boys, men, parents, elders, community and religious leaders; governments; media; donors; and inter-governmental agencies. Most Girls Not Brides members are local or national organisations, and more than a third are youth-led.

The National Partnerships have developed effective, context-specific governance and management structures with support from the Secretariat. Their experience shows that it is critical to invest in building trust and cohesion amongst partners, and ensure that youth, smaller women’s rights organisations, and activists from all levels and background are able to work together respectfully.

There is no silver bullet to end the long-standing practice of child marriage - it requires tackling deeply rooted gender norms, and takes time, especially to meet the needs of the most vulnerable girls. While the evidence on what works, especially at scale, is still limited, Girls Not Brides continues to encourage learning around effective approaches, working with researchers to identify and fill knowledge gaps, and ensuring that evidence informs policies and programmes.

What next?

An estimated 25 million child marriages were averted over the past decade (UNCF, 2018[1]). This is a testament to concerted efforts by community activists, national governments, donors and UN agencies. However, major challenges could derail or even reverse progress. More funding is still needed. Countries must ensure that they are delivering on their commitments by resourcing and implementing comprehensive strategies. Ending child marriage needs to be integrated across sectors, including health and education. Partners need to better reach girls in conflict-affected contexts, where pressure to marry early can be high.

Worryingly, in many places, shrinking civic space has significantly hampered the work of Girls Not Brides members. But the momentum of collective action is only growing. A 2018 Girls Not Brides Global Meeting (Girls not Brides, 2018[5]) provided an opportunity for 500 activists to discuss challenges, identify opportunities, and renew their commitments to work together so that every girl, everywhere, has the opportunity to live free of child marriage and shape her own future.


[5] Girls not Brides (2018), Words of welcome: Together we can end child marriage, https://www.girlsnotbrides.org/global-meeting-magazine/words-of-welcome/index.html.

[4] Girls not Brides (2017), Solutions brief: National initiatives to address child marriage, https://www.girlsnotbrides.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/National-strategies-to-end-child-marriage-Girls-Not-Brides.pdf.

[3] Girls not Brides (2016), It takes a movement: Reflecting on five years of progress towards ending child marriage, Girls not Brides, https://www.girlsnotbrides.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/IT-TAKES-A-MOVEMENT-ENG.pdf.

[1] UNCF (2018), Child Marriage: Latest trends and future prospects, UNICEF, https://data.unicef.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Child-Marriage-Data-Brief.pdf.

[2] Wodon, Q. et al. (2017), Economic impacts of child marriage, World Bank Group, http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/530891498511398503/Economic-impacts-of-child-marriage-global-synthesis-report.


← 1. Child marriage is any formal marriage or informal union in which at least one of the parties is under 18 years of age. Joint general recommendation No. 31 of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women; General comment No. 18 of the Committee on the Rights of the Child on harmful practices.

← 2. At the UN Human Rights Council (https://www.girlsnotbrides.org/human-rights-council-adopts-resolution-to-end-child-early-and-forced-marriage/) and UN General Assembly in 2014 (http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/RES/69/156) and 2016 (http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/RES/71/175&referer=http://www.un.org/en/ga/71/resolutions.shtml&Lang=E).

← 3. For more information, see: https://www.girlsnotbrides.org/about-girls-not-brides/national-partnerships/.

← 4. For more information on the theory of change, see: https://www.girlsnotbrides.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Girls-Not-Brides-Theory-of-Change-on-Child-Marriage-1.pdf.

← 5. For success stories and programmatic case studies from Girls Not Brides members, see Girls Not Brides’ Girls Voices page and online Resource Centre.

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