Imagine you are a 14-year-old girl. You are doing well in school. You like reading, listening to music and chatting with your friends. You have dreams of becoming a doctor and healing people. One evening, your parents suddenly announce to you that you are about to be married to a 35-year-old man. You will have to stop going to school and leave your small town to move to his community. You have never met this man and know very little about sexuality or your own reproductive health. You are not ready to become a mother, but you likely will become pregnant very soon. What do you do? How do you feel? I can’t even begin to imagine.
This is the story of 12 million girls every year around the world. Twelve million girls married before their 18th birthday, pulled out of school, and soon faced with a dangerous early pregnancy. Because of their young age and lower status in their husband’s household, they often have little power to refuse sex, escape domestic violence or obtain healthcare and other resources for themselves or their children. Many become widows at an early age. They and their children are likely to live in poverty. Think about this: around the world, there are 650 million women and girls alive today who were married as children. That is simply staggering! And just in case you thought this only happened in the Global South, you should know that child marriage is currently legal in 43 US states. In the US, between 2000 and 2018, 300,000 children—the vast majority of them girls married to older men—were wedded before their 18th birthday.
We’ve known about child marriage for a long time. In 1995, at the Fourth World Conference on Women, 189 countries adopted the Beijing Platform for Action to secure the human rights of all women across the world, a broad and groundbreaking set of commitments still on point today. In the chapter on girls, governments recognized child marriage—that is, any marriage or union in which at least one party is under the age of 18—as a violation of human rights, a form of discrimination against girls and a practice that had to be stopped.
Yet, fifteen years later, there was still little coordinated campaigning to eradicate the practice. This changed in 2011 when a group of organizations around the world decided to work together to tackle child marriage. This group brought together grassroots activists, like the women of the Association pour la Promotion de l’Autonomie et des Droits de la Fille (APAD) in Northern Cameroun, together with international groups like the International Women’s Health Coalition, CREA, CARE, Population Council, Global Fund for Women and funders like the American Jewish World Service, the Ford Foundation and the Kendeda Fund. Mabel van Oranje, a Dutch princess who had been deeply involved in advocacy on HIV and AIDS and human rights, persuaded the Elders, the group of former heads of state and notable personalities, to take up child marriage as a flagship issue. The result was Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage, a hard-hitting campaigning platform and partnership that rapidly raised the profile of child marriage at the global level. Today, Girls Not Brides brings together 1,600 organizations around the world, many of them working at the very local level in their community to stop the practice and transform the lives of girls. The hard work of all these groups did pay off: 12 million marriages a year is down from 15 million a year in 2014, and rates of child marriage in India have declined markedly, from 47.4% in 2005 to 27% in 2016.
Earlier this month, I had the great pleasure of meeting Dr. Faith Mwangi-Powell, the Chief Executive Officer of Girls Not Brides (GNB), at their offices in London. Dr. Mwangi-Powell is a Kenyan public health expert who has led movements to stop female genital mutilation in the UK and in Africa, and to improve access to palliative care in Africa. Her deep commitment to improving the lives and health of women and girls is a through line of her career, and I was deeply inspired by her dynamism and vision. Our conversation has been excerpted and edited for brevity.
FG: I’m so pleased to meet with you again, Dr. Mwangi-Powell. Before we speak about the work of Girls Not Brides, can you tell us what has driven you to focus on women’s rights throughout your career? Were there early experiences in Kenya that drove that passion?
FMP: I started working on women’s issues when I was a young girl, in a way. I come from a county called Muranga in Central Kenya, a Kikuyu community. I would sit with my mum and her women’s self-help group. She chaired the Kagio women’s self-help group, which would come together and collect money as part of a Community Development Fund. They would meet maybe twice a month and share the money and agree on what projects they were going to do together: buy pieces of land, houses for rent, pay for schooling for their children. But my mother never really went to school, and neither did many of the other women. I was the educated one, so I would be reading their bank statement for them. I’d be telling them how much money they had to share with each other. I would write the minutes of what they had agreed to, do the roll call. I can still see myself, sitting at a very early age in the middle of those women.
FG: Oh wow!
FMP: Yes. You know, it was fun. I think that’s where my interest in women’s issues came from. And as you start growing up, you start realizing how women are disadvantaged in so many ways.
FG: Were you aware then that child marriage affected girls and women in your community?
FMP: I didn’t really see it then, if I’m honest. But looking back, I see it. I went to a village school and we finished primary school at 14 or 15 and you heard, “Oh, somebody got married or somebody had a baby.” It wasn’t very explicit, but there were so many girls who did not continue to secondary school after primary school. And when you followed up, they had a baby, they were married. So it was happening. But, at that point, it didn’t click for me
Now I realize, there was no other opportunities for girls after primary if they did not carry on with their education. There wasn’t. If you just have primary education and no skills, if you just stay at home, you’re likely to become a teenage mother. So I guess the thinking was: you better actually be doing that within the confines of a marriage.
FG: And when you meet those women today, your schoolmates, how have their lives become different from yours as a result?
FMP: Our lives are very different. You wouldn’t even think that we shared a world. They had children when they were 17, 18. I go to my village church sometimes to preach. I meet them and they’re like, “Oh, you’re so lucky.” But they also pick on me because I only have one child. So they also challenge me! But our lives are so different. We can’t even relate to each other. And yet we shared a world as children until we were 14. It was also interesting to see some of them in similar self-help groups to those my mother was in. History here repeats itself… I could have easily been one of them.
FG: Why is it that you took a different path? You have a PhD from the University of Exeter in the UK and an illustrious global career, so your life couldn’t be more different!
FMP: My father was the assistant chief of my village and my mum the leader of the women. They wanted better. I remember both of them getting a lot of stick for taking their girls to school. “Why are you educating all those girls? Those girls should be married.” And we were a family of nine, with six girls, three boys. He would say: “My children need to go to school.” He would tell us: “What a man can do, you can do.” He would tell us that literally every day. I remember telling him something was impossible. He would reply, “There is nothing impossible. Things are just hard. Hard, but not impossible. Just try!” He wasn’t much educated, but he had a level of wisdom. He worked for the colonial government, whether that was a good thing or not. He would be thinking, why are all these people so privileged, and I’m not? I want what they have. You know, you could either be consumed by it or be inspired by it. And if I can’t have it for myself, I want it for my children, including my daughters.
FG: Did all of you get an education?
FMP: All of us! One of my sisters works for the [Bill and Melinda] Gates Foundation in Seattle, one is a doctor, another one a pharmacist. And here I am. Yes. It worked. It worked. In fact, one of my sisters was the first woman in our village to drive a car. It was a gray VW Beetle. I remember it coming down the hill. She was so excited to come and show my dad she had bought a car.
FG: She was breaking all the norms!
FMP: All the norms. Yeah!
FG: And was your father happy?
FMP: Oh, my gosh. He was like… “Now I can rest!”
FG: Ah, that’s amazing! Let’s talk about the work of Girls Not Brides. We still have 12 million girls married every year before the age of 18. It’s a widespread phenomenon and quite persistent. In your work at Girls Not Brides and talking to your partners, what do you hear? Why is it that girls continue to get married so young?
FMP: There are many drivers of child marriage, but the main one is patriarchy, the system where girls are not as valued as boys. That is the deep-rooted issue: girls don’t have the same value. And if you look at even how communities are socialized, if there is limited education, it’s girls who miss out on school. If there is limited food, it’s girls who miss out on food. That becomes further complicated by increased poverty. It becomes complicated by social norms: this is what our mothers did, so this is what needs to happen. It is also complicated by issues of security, which put girls in vulnerable positions. Most parents are afraid that if their girls stay home, they will become pregnant and nobody will want them. So it’s also an issue of securing a future for their girls. It’s so many drivers depending on context. We always have to look at context. But the root cause is gender inequality. That is the real root cause. Then it displays itself in different ways. But that is the driver of child marriage.
FG: That’s important to understand. Because people often think it’s simply poverty.
FMP: It’s not primarily poverty. Poor people are very innovative, very ingenious. So if you think about it, if there weren’t a social norm or an underlying value, you wouldn’t think of selling your child, right? You’d look to other solutions. There must be a set of underlying issues. Why not sell the boy, why choose that girl? You see, that’s the question! Why? It’s that value placed on girls. And until that value has shifted…
FG: I remember, years ago, I was talking to women from India who were telling me that girls were getting forced into marriage even in rich families. That’s when it clicked for me. All right. If rich families also marry off their daughters, it’s about something else!
I mean, there’s this knotty issue of sexuality, right? Controlling young girls’ sexuality. Because the need to control girls, to try to ensure that they are married while they’re still virgins has been, as you say, one of the unspoken causes of child marriage. And yet I remember ten years ago, we were discussing this and there were some who didn’t want to talk about issues of sexuality, because it would cause a backlash. Let’s talk about girls’ education, keeping girls in school instead. But we thought, unless we highlight the fact that the gender norms are really about controlling sexuality, we’re going to miss the boat in terms of solutions. What did you think about that?
FMP: I agree. I think that is too serious an issue not to talk about it. Girls Not Brides joined the Child, Early and Forced Marriage and Unions Sexuality Working Group to compile and publish a report called Tackling the Taboo [Tackling the Taboo: Sexuality and gender-transformative programs to end child, early and forced marriage and unions], with case studies from Kenya, Nigeria and India. We partnered with groups that are at the forefront of work on sexuality to produce this report, and launched it in Nairobi in 2019 at the International Conference on Population and Development+25 meeting. I remember feeling a bit nervous because there were groups which, as you say, did not want to talk about sexuality in the context of child marriage. Meanwhile, the report was saying that we need to make sure that comprehensive sexuality education is included in schools, we need to make sure girls have information and power over their own sexuality, and we need to put girls at the heart of that conversation. Girls are controlled because they don’t have information. Let’s ensure they can access the information they need, rather than covering our eyes and thinking, oh my God! The Tackling the Taboo Report started opening up some of these conversations. It’s not an easy conversation. People get uneasy about it, but we have to talk about it.
FG: In which countries or regions is the problem of child, early and forced marriage the most acute?
FMP: 29 of the countries with the highest rates are in Africa. Countries like Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and Nigeria have a high percentage of child marriages. But when you look at absolute numbers, India has the most child marriages. But the beauty of India is that we have seen consistent declines in child marriage there [from 54% in 1992/1993 to 27% in 2016]. We have also started to see declines in Ethiopia. But some of the circumstances we are facing right now—COVID, climate change, war, the cost of living—are reversing some of these statistics because it’s rendering girls and families more vulnerable.
FG: What are you seeing are the impacts on girls themselves of getting married at 13, 14?
FMP: I put myself in that place and I think, where was I at 18? You know, what would I have liked to do? I don’t think that, for most girls, marriage is what comes to their mind. Every girl has a dream. So we cut those dreams short. Schooling is stopped. You are in the prime of your life with a lot of hope at 18 or even at 10 or 12, depending on what age you marry because some marry very early. You deny a child economic opportunities. The other challenge we see is health. You know, girls get pregnant so early. We have seen a lot of fistulas [severe tearing of the vagina and rectum as a result of prolonged labor, resulting in constant leaking of urine and feces]. One of the largest fistula hospitals in the world is in Burkina Faso. And it’s all linked to these early marriages. And there are also high maternal mortality rates.
We see that cycle of poverty continue. If you are a poor mother, your children will be poor, and then you perpetuate that cycle of poverty. There is also a lot of psychosocial trauma in girls. I’m not saying that this is what happens to every one of them every time, but for some of them marriage is being raped every day as a child. It’s a terrible experience for young girls.
FG: And the husbands are usually older?
FMP: In most cases, the husbands are older men. But in Latin America, it’s mostly informal unions of adolescent girls and boys. That also perpetuates poverty. The other issue I’ve seen is domestic violence. It is a very big factor in child marriages. Basically, girls don’t want to be married. I can tell you: every girl has a dream. And we need to allow them to dream it.
FG: What are the impacts on communities and countries of having a high rate of child marriage, such as in Mali or Niger? Is there national data, at the aggregate level, about the impact?
FMP: Absolutely! If you look at Niger, it’s 76% of girls below 18. It’s high.
FG: Wow, that is SO high. I knew it was high in Niger, but I didn’t realize it was that high.
FMP: In Mali, it’s 54%. Also high. If we don’t allow girls to go to school, then we deny a whole population the chance to be economically productive. I was in a conference last week on sexual violence in conflict zones, and one of the speakers from Afghanistan said that Afghanistan is losing about $19 billion a year as a result of child marriage and from girls being out of school and women not being involved in the economy of the country. And these girls and women are also dependent. So there is no economic output from the women, and they also need to be helped. It’s double jeopardy, if you like. Just because we are not offering our children and women these opportunities. And beyond economics, if many girls are having sexual and maternal health problems, it also creates a burden on sexual and reproductive health services, which are really costly. Think about it: if 75% of girls are pulled out of school, then there are many people without the skills to contribute to the country. So the challenges are immense.
FG: Are there countries that give you hope, where you are seeing a change?
FMP: Yes. I’m impressed by Sierra Leone. The Minister of Education for Sierra Leone, David [Moinina] Sengeh, is a very progressive minister. He has introduced legislation to allow married girls to go back to school if they want. If they are pregnant, they can come back to school. So really focusing on girls’ education. While it doesn’t solve every problem, education is actually a gateway to solving many of the world’s problems. If people have the skills, they will think about how to solve their own problems. That’s a country to watch. And I hope other countries can do the same, because in many countries, girls want to go back to school after marriage or pregnancy, but are not allowed to.
FG: And it’s not easy to go back to school, even if you are allowed!
FMP: Right. The stigma alone of a pregnant girl signing up back to school is daunting. And also the fact that when you have a child, you often don’t have childcare. You are the carer, you are the provider. You are everything. You do not have systems to help you. So creating those systems and creating innovative ways for people to participate in education is important. It doesn’t always have to be classroom learning. What are the other ways, innovative ways, through which we can create opportunities for girls to acquire skills?
I am also hopeful about Uganda. Uganda has a national strategy on ending child marriage and teenage pregnancy. Our Girls Not Brides National Partnership there is working very closely with the government. So that gives me hope because that’s what we want: it’s not an issue on which we work from outside the system. It becomes a recognized issue that the governments are willing to respond to, in however manner they want to respond. Funding is always an issue, but a statement that this issue is important, is good. In some states in India, the movement has also become very strong. For example, the movement is very active in Rajasthan and teams are really trying to figure out how they can work through existing mechanisms to reduce child marriage. Even looking at allowances for girls, which could increase girls’ access to services. So really looking at the opportunities. Other countries where the movement is growing are Tanzania and Kenya. So there’s hope, despite the very depressing times we are in right now.
FG: I assume climate disasters, like the massive flooding in Pakistan or wars as the one in Syria, are making trends worse?
FMP: We are seeing an increase. COVID hit us very hard because, when the schools closed, the parents were like, I don’t think you’ll ever go back to school. Let’s secure your future. We saw a big increase in child marriage and also teenage pregnancy as a result. UNICEF projects that, by 2030, ten million more girls will be married—on top of the 12 million a year—because of COVID. Then add to that climate change, drought, hunger. Families are actually giving away their girls into marriage because household income is so low, they can’t feed their children. Their cows have died, they don’t have any income. So girls have become a source of income. We see that happening in the Horn of Africa. With the floods in Pakistan, schools are closed, so that is increasing vulnerabilities for girls. All these crises come together.
FG: All kinds of strategies have been tried to stop child marriage—paying for school fees or uniforms or giving cash to the families if the girl isn’t married before 18. Some of these approaches stop marriage for a while, but as soon as the girls turn 18, the families marry them off and cash in the money. OK, they were married later, that’s good, but it’s not as though there was a change of mind about the value of girls. What are you seeing that does work to change the fundamental incentives?
FMP: Given the nature of child marriage, it needs a multisectoral, multi-system approach, because it’s not one thing that is going to stop it. There is no silver bullet. Education comes closest to being the silver bullet because when girls have an education, they have a chance. But even that is not enough on its own. A law on age of marriage is good, but the law alone is not going to end child marriage. All it does is provide a framework for us to work in. The Sustainable Development Goals [the 2030 global goals that do include ending child marriage] are good, but they can only provide an accountability mechanism for governments to respond to. Cash transfers only work if they are conditional, and they only work for a while. We need to have a long-term strategy for after 18 years of age. Now what? What is the opportunity for that girl? Because you don’t want just to delay marriage. You want to make sure that there is an opportunity for these girls.
What is most interesting to me is working on gender-transformative approaches, going to the heart of those social norms through dialogue, education, community leadership, religious leadership and engaging them to start saying, there is a different way to secure the future of your daughters. Let’s see whether there are other ways, other solutions we can co-create. Let’s think about it differently. Going to the heart, the root, the underlying issue. Working with communities to understand the impact of those gender norms. Also making sure that you identify the right allies to work with. It can’t be me turning up from London, telling people to end child marriage. Who are the right messengers, who are the champions within those communities, who can we work with? And that’s why the movement to end child marriage is important, because it’s at the heart of those conversations in every context. And making sure that the girls are at the center of this.
FG: What do you mean by that?
FMP: Because it has to be done with the girls. First, because they also have to understand why this is important. If you come from a community where it’s the norm to get married by 15, as a girl, you feel you failed if you don’t get married by 15. Girls feel pressure from those social norms. Second, because girls are the experts on their own circumstances. We need to support them to propose and implement their own solutions. That’s the only way solutions respond to reality and are effective. So it’s very important that those discussions are inclusive of the girls and feature the leadership of the girls.
FG: Tell me about the movement, the partnership you have. There are, I think, 1,600 groups worldwide, including grassroots groups and community organizations, in the Girls Not Brides partnership.
FMP: That’s what we have: 1,600 members in 107 countries. Most people get surprised by that! The first thing that the movement does is to demystify this issue and give it credibility. It’s the solidarity and the credibility of people who understand the issue in their own context. The Partnership is a convener, an influencer, and a space for shared learning for communities to bring change. It’s building those national ecosystems for change, finding allies who can come together at the national level, holding governments accountable to the policies they’ve signed. Also moving further down, working with their own communities through transformative approaches to make sure that change happens at community level, at the girls’ level.
In some countries, some of those organizations have created their own National Partnerships and coalitions. We have Girls Not Brides Uganda, Girls Not Brides Rajasthan in India, Girls Not Brides Guatemala. Where there are well-organized networks, like in Uganda, Mozambique, Guatemala and Kenya, we invest in them. I don’t say we give grants; we invest in them, including with technical support. Right now, we have about 30 National Partnerships and coalitions.
But even if you are one lone organization in a country, you can still do something. The issue is perpetuated by secrecy and silence. So if people start talking about it, they demystify it, they break the stigma. People become aware, they start to understand. And then once we know, we can talk about what we are going to do about it.
FG: Who funds these groups on the ground?
FMP: Girls Not Brides funds the National Partnerships directly, but we can’t fund smaller groups directly. So the Girls First Fund was created in 2018. It’s a different funding pot, sitting in a different entity, which funds grassroots organizations. It’s actually a donor collaborative. It was started by the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF), the Ford Foundation, Wellspring Philanthropies and the Kendeda Fund. They all pooled their funds, each giving $5 million. It’s actually a $50 million organization funding grassroot efforts at this point.
Regarding government support to end child marriage, Canada has been a leader. Sweden and the Netherlands also. The UK has funded the UNICEF/UNFPA Global Programme to End Child Marriage. But the UK is cutting their budgets, so we will see.
The US government did actually commit to ending child marriage by 2030 under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but they did not commit to a budget line. They did commit to gender funding, but that has been ebbing and flowing with different administrations. The US is very curious in that regard: things change depending on who is in charge. Last week at the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative Conference, the head of Gender at USAID [the US government development agency] said they are committing about $130 million to end gender-based violence (GBV). Child marriage won’t have its own budget line, but will sit within GBV. Of course, the challenge is how that is going to be distributed, who is going to get the funds. Because accessing USAID funding is not very easy.
FG: Have there been moments when you’ve met girls who’ve told you that the work of Girls Not Brides or the work of your partners changed their lives?
FMP: Yes. I was India in 2020, in Rajasthan. I met young girls working to end child marriage. They were so young. I was asking one of them why she was motivated to end child marriage. She told me she was married at the age of 14, but she ran away and convinced her dad to take her back to school, and the dad agreed. And when she went back to school, she felt really inspired to be a champion for change. She joined an adolescent girls’ club which goes from home to home, talking to mothers, to parents to end child marriage, telling them how it’s important for children to be in school. And that day they came to meet me, there were 36 girls. All those girls were the girls this club had supported to avoid marriage and stay in school. Sitting in that room, I got goosebumps because I was thinking, this is success! This is it, this is it! This is the work.
FG: That must have been energizing!
FMP: They were so excited. I was thinking, you guys have done it. They were saying: “Thank you, thank you.” But it’s not me. They did it. They were all taking selfies and photos and saying how proud they were. And it stayed with me, and made me think, wow, this is what it’s about, sitting with those girls in that room! Talking to you about it, I’m back in that room with them. It was such an amazing trip. Coming back from India, I was thinking when I was 13, 14, would I have even run away as she did? I would have just accepted the status quo. I felt, wow, there’s hope out there. Girls are fighting for themselves.
FG: And interestingly, she saved herself…
FMP: Yes, but she’s continuing to help other girls. That’s how the movement works. It’s not only about you. It’s about others. You are now out of the problem, but how can you help others? And don’t feel helpless. Just do what you can! If it’s walking to people’s homes and telling them not to marry off their girls, just do that! Wow, it was so amazing.
We are getting to a place where I feel the easiest work has been done in terms of reaching those that should be reached on child marriage. So how do we reach the hard to reach, those girls who are in communities where there is drought, those who are refugees, those who are in conflict zones? Look at Afghanistan… Have we just forgotten and gone silent on Afghanistan? What are we going to do about it? My heart breaks for Afghan girls every day. What are we going to do? We need to think about the hard problems. And maybe we don’t know yet what to do, but we need to learn and think about what to do. We can’t give up. I think my parting words are: it’s hard to end child marriage, but it’s not impossible. So we need to keep at it.
If you would like to support some of the grassroots organizations working to end child marriage that are members of the Girls Not Brides partnership, a page on the Girls Not Brides website helps you read about different groups and direct your funds directly to them. Getting married soon? Girls Not Brides partners with VOW for Girls, a separate charity. You can list VOW on your wedding register to direct gifts to grassroots groups working to end child marriage. That’s pretty cool!
In loving and fierce solidarity with all the 14-year-old girls in our lives, and the ones we once were, I wish you a just, happy, free, feminist 2023!