What it takes to end child marriage

Oct 05, 2020
Last year I travelled to Afghanistan. A devastating drought was causing widespread crop failure and hundreds of thousands of people were being forced from their remote villages to live in large displacement camps in order to survive. 

The humanitarian crisis included an alarming development. Reports of child marriages were rising rapidly. More fathers were literally selling their daughters into marriage to feed the rest of their family. So we went on an awareness raising mission to help figure out what Canadians can do to help.

Most Canadians already know that child marriage, or any union where one or both parties is under eighteen, is a serious human rights violation. And while early marriage happens in places across the world for a variety of reasons, the impact is universal. It undermines the health, safety and future of children, particularly girls. 

Despite some progress, early marriage continues to be a serious global issue.
  • 650 million women alive today were married early
  • 12 million girls under 18 are married every year
  • 23 girls are married every minute – that’s roughly one girl every 3 seconds
And recent World Vision research warns an additional four million girls are at risk of child marriage in the next two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Afghanistan is one of the most challenging places in the world for women and girls to live, ranking 153rd of 160 countries on the UN’s Gender Inequality Index. More than 35% of Afghan girls are married before the age of 18 and nearly 10% before their 15th birthday.

Below you’ll hear directly from the daughters, fathers, mothers, Imams and other local leaders we met in these Afghan communities. Through their stories, shared in their own words, we can all better understand the complex reasons why child marriage happens. And more importantly how to stop it. How to prevent it. And what it takes to keep girls in school.

Benesh: Surviving child marriage

A young Afgan girl wears a black and pink head scarf over her hair

We spoke with Benesh*, 14, in a displacement camp at the epicentre of the drought. She was visiting a mobile health centre because she was pregnant with her second child. She had been married at 11 for a $3000USD bride price and already had one son. “I didn’t know that my parents had sold me. I thought I was going to a picnic,” says Benesh. “It is difficult to look after a baby. I see girls my age playing outside, but I have my own child to play with. If I have a daughter, I want her to be educated and not like me, an illiterate person. I would allow her to grow up and decide whether to get married or not.” She had not seen her parents for three years. Sometime after we met her, Benesh left the camp and her whereabouts are unknown.

Benesh made it clear that when girls are married, they are often isolated from their family, friends and community. They often experience violence, abuse and exploitation. Married girls who become pregnant as children also face higher health risks to themselves and to their babies. Child marriage is also directly linked to dropping out of school, limiting their futures. Other significant consequences of this harmful practice include lost economic opportunities for girls and their communities that perpetuate the cycle of extreme poverty. 

Alhanoor: running out of options

an Afghan family in their tent shelter in an IDP camp.We met Alhanoor at another displacement camp with his wife and children, forced from home because of conflict and drought. “We have no protection here,” Alahnoor told us. “In one of the other camps a girl just disappeared. I am afraid we will be robbed and that my daughters will be kidnapped or raped. It is very difficult here and I can’t find anyone to buy my daughter (12). I don’t want to marry her off, but there is nothing I can do, I have to sacrifice one of the family members to save the others.” 

Why child marriage happens 

It’s easy to draw quick conclusions about child marriage. Before the trip I felt I had a clear idea of who were the victims and who were the villains. But Alahnoor’s story reveals both the complexities and the root causes. 
  • Insecurity. In unstable places where girls face a high risk of harassment or assault, like refugee camps and during humanitarian crises, many families view marriage as a way to protect girls from danger. 
  • Poverty. More than half of the girls growing up in extreme poverty are married as children. Early marriage can often be a negative coping mechanism to relieve financial burden or in communities where there is a “bride price”, an opportunity to repay debts.
  • Gender inequality. In many communities where child marriage is practiced, girls are less valued than boys and often seen as a burden. Gender inequality and the desire to control choices for women and girls and their sexuality is often directly linked to the concept of family honour.   
  • Tradition. Early marriage can happen because of traditional practices. In many places, when girls begin to menstruate, they are considered women and marriage becomes the next step in her pre-determined role as a wife and mother. 

Ending child marriage in Afghanistan

While it’s often said that it takes a village to raise a child, I learned that it takes all of us to protect a childhood. The It Takes a World to End Child Marriage of Afghan Girls campaign, launched by World Vision in 2017, helps reduce incidents of child, early and forced marriage (CEFM) in western Afghanistan. 

Local community and faith leaders are engaged first and then those trusted leaders spread those messages to the wider community as a longer-term, self-sustaining solution. The program has successfully intervened to stop dozens of child marriages while preventing or delaying many more.

Community-led change

A group of Afhan women sit in a circle on the floor.

We met women and girls participating in a community change group session organized by World Vision. The change groups are part of a holistic approach that engages families, community and religious leaders to prevent child marriage and keep girls in school. 

The program uses comprehensive solutions to stop, prevent or delay early marriage including:   
  1. Empowering girls and women with information about their rights and creating support networks that encourage girls to have a say in their future. 
  2. Economic assistance and incentives for families to prevent negative financial coping mechanisms.
  3. Educating and engaging parents, community members and community leaders to transform cultural norms, attitudes and practices.
  4. Enhancing girls’ access to a high-quality education and promote life skills development.
  5. Advocating for stronger laws and policies that protect children’s rights, particularly girls’, and ensuring that they are enforced.

Esin: stopping her own marriage
A young Afghan girl smiles at the camera.

Esin, 13, told us that she learned her father had arranged for her to be married when overhearing him making arrangements on the telephone. Esin’s mother had been attending a community change group session that taught her about women’s rights. With the support of the group facilitator, her father was convinced to stop the marriage. “I tell my friends about what happened, so they know their right not to get married,” says Esin. “I would like to be an advocate for girls, I hope all Afghan girls get an education so they can use their talents to build this country.”

Fariba: teaching women’s rights 

We met Fariba, 32, a local leader who became a Community Change Group facilitator. She’s also a teacher, taking what she has learned to her classroom where each day she talks to her female students about their rights and how to prevent child marriage. “Of the four recent cases of child marriage we’ve encountered, we’ve been able to stop two of them,” says Fariba. “It’s very upsetting for the young girls I’ve spoken to, when they talk about getting married, they cry and threaten to commit suicide. One time in my school, I noticed that one of my students was not in the class. I asked the students where she was, and they told me she had been sold to be married. When I went to the family, they told me it was because of the bride price. I talked with a community elder and together we worked with the family for two months. Eventually they agreed to stop the marriage.” 

Ilham: escaping child marriage

Eleven-year-old Ilham told us that she found out that her father had promised to sell her into marriage after finding flowers in their home. Ilham's mother Rowaida bravely challenged the marriage after learning about her rights at a Community Change Group. “I cried. I was very upset,” says Ilham. “I didn’t want to be married. None of my friends want to be married. Like me, they want to go to school to be a useful person.” “I was only 11 years old when I was married,” says Rowaida. “At the time, I didn’t know women have rights. If I had not attended this program my daughter would have been forced to be married. I do whatever I can. I wash clothes to be able to afford supplies so they can go to school. When I hear Ilham’s dreams, I know I will do whatever I can to help my daughter achieve her goals. We are not just a mother and daughter, we are friends.” Rowaida continues to fight family and financial pressures to prevent Ilham from getting married.

Rahila: local leader fights early marriage
An Afghan woman turns from her groups conversation to look at the camera.

We met Rahila, 19, a female “Shura” (local community leader) and teacher at a Community Change Group. She told us about how she learned about the rights of women and girls as well as the physical and mental health impacts of child marriage. “Several friends of mine were married at a very young age,” says Rahila. “One of my friends was married at 11. She died giving birth to her second child when she was 14.” She shared her determination to end the harmful practice in her community.

Nazir: risking his life for gender equality
A young Afghan Imam looks directly into the camera. He wears a white turban.

Imam Nazir Mobarez, 24, who has been engaged as part of the change group process, advocates for education and preaches against child marriage in his village. “Before when organizations (like World Vision) wanted to work in my village, I would not allow it,” says Mobarez. “But after talking to them I discovered that we have the same goals, we just have a different approach. Islam doesn’t allow harmful practices and early marriage is harmful. A man and woman should meet each other before marriage and only get married if they both agree. The other day a man approached me with a gun and threatened to kill me if I don’t stop advocating for women’s empowerment. I told him I will fight for women’s empowerment until my last drop of blood.”

Listen to Nazir share his story:

Abdulhay: standing up for his daughter
An Afghan father wraps his arm around his daughter in their home. They are both smiling.

We met Abdulhay, 43 and his daughter Nasima, 12 at their home. Abdulhay had been attending the Community Change Group sessions for men. “The sessions were very useful,” says Abdulhay. “We didn’t know some of the issues and we used to marry off our daughters when they were very young at 14, 13 even 11. But we have stopped that. My hope is that my children get an education and select their future husband for themselves.” “I was happy to hear my father say these things,” says Nasima. “I don’t want to be married and I want to continue my education. I want to study medicine. I want to provide a service to my country. One of my friends was married last year when she was thirteen. I haven’t seen her since.”

Atiba: modeling economic empowerment
An Afghan woman looks confidently up at the camera

We met Atiba Tokhi at Afghanistan’s first women’s market. She turned a restaurant starter kit from World Vision into a thriving business. Her $3USD in savings have now grown to more than $4000USD. “I want women to be educated,” says Atiba. “Women who have the opportunity to be doctors and teachers and see the world will improve women’s rights in Afghanistan.”

Sehat: earning a better future for her daughter
An Afghan woman holds her toddler and sits in front of many jars of honey piled high.

We met Beekeeper Sehat Aul (35) with her daughter Farida (2) at her farm. Sehat was provided with a beekeeping starter kit and has grown her business from a few hives to 21 hives, each producing 20kg of honey each year which are sold at the women’s market. Her earnings provide her family with basic necessities, electricity and medical treatments for Farida who has a hole in her heart. “I want my child to grow up with an education,” says Sehat. “Farida now has opportunities I never had as a child.”

Success of the community change solution

So far, the It Takes a World to End Child Marriage of Afghan Girls campaign has engaged thousands of parents, faith leaders, schoolteachers and both community and government leaders through Community Change Groups that have been developed throughout the region. 

Several years after starting, 88% of children reported that they are able to complete their education instead of getting married. Particularly important is that people in the community have both a better understanding of why early marriage is wrong, why it happens and why girls need to stay in school. There is also a mechanism in place for the whole community to address the issue and intervene when necessary. Advocacy for policy changes and enforcement continues at both local and national levels. 

While a lot of progress has been made but there is still a very long way to go to ending child and forced marriage in Afghanistan. 

What can you do?

Act now to help stop and prevent child marriage through the Women and Girls in Crisis Fund which works with families and communities to overcome these challenges.  

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