Tackling the issue of child marriage requires recognition of a number of economic, structural, and social factors such as the need to support many children, a lack of educational opportunities for girls, and powerful traditions and social norms enforced by families and communities. Girls who marry before the age of 18 are more likely to have lower educational attainment having been made to leave school earlier, have a greater chance of experiencing unwanted pregnancy, and are at greater risk of sexual and reproductive health morbidities and maternal mortality. This journal article looks at some of the root causes underlying child marriage through the prism of social determinants, and the role that faith-based organisations (FBOs) and faith-inspired initiatives could play in ending the practice. The article begins by focusing on social determinants (the conditions in which people are born, grow up, live, work, and age) and socio-cultural norms (including religion) combine to influence a person’s opportunity to be healthy, educated, and successful. Next, the article examines how and why faith matters by looking at instances of how governments themselves have involved FBOs, as well as citing the work of some of the FBOs currently dealing with the issue of child marriage.
The article then presents a half dozen profiles of FBOs presently dealing with child marriage, including: USAID, amongst whose work was an educational initiative on social media called “Let Girls Learn”; World Vision International, who have been providing reproductive health education in Bangladesh; the GHR Foundation in Kenya, a Catholic institution who are funding efforts to empower religious leaders to work with schools to reduce child marriage; Tostan in Senegal, who use a combination of non-formal education and social mobilisation to advance its goal of empowering communities, and reducing the practices of child marriage and FGM; the Institute for Health Management Pachod in India, who started providing year-long life skills programmes for unmarried 11-17-year-old girls often denied formal education; and the End Child Marriage programme in Ethiopia, which works with economic incentives to provide school materials to help keep girls in school, and enable out-of-school girls to re-enroll.
The author concludes that current programs, while contributing to delaying marriage among specific populations, are insufficient for ending the practice anytime soon. Less attention is being paid to mitigating the impact of child marriage in the lives of girls, and to making the case at the highest levels so that child marriage comes to be seen as an important hindrance to development. It is increasingly clear that engaging communities to change social and cultural norms is no longer a matter of choice, but rather of necessity, and so it is vital that programmes and interventions follow the evidence that shows working with religious actors, and FBOs in particular, offers multiple entry points for building on current efforts. Such ‘faith-centric’ efforts remain less funded by mainstream secular development actors focused on “social norm and behavioural change” programs, and who often see religion in general, and faith-based actors in particular, as marginal to other social determinants. Given ongoing geopolitical realities, faith-related endeavours are, if anything, becoming more prominent in today’s developmental landscape, and to realise the human rights presently denied girls by child marriage, religious actors must be among the most prominent parts of the solution.