On 17 June 2013, the Wilson Center Maternal Health Initiative convened this dialogue, in partnership with the Maternal Health Task Force (MHTF) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

According to the UN Population Fund, more than 140 million girls will become child brides between 2011 and 2020 – an estimated 14.2 million young girls marrying too young every year or 39,000 daily. The majority of these girls do not receive access to education or reproductive health services.

Additionally, once a girl is married, she is at greater risk of domestic violence, more likely to get pregnant early, more likely to die during pregnancy, and more vulnerable to HIV, said Anju Malhotra, principal adviser for gender and rights at UNICEF. “The circle of inequalities gets perpetuated,” she said.

Laws alone have proven ineffective at preventing child marriage. Countries like Bangladesh, India, and Indonesia have had minimum age of marriage laws for decades but still have high rates of girls married under the age of 18 (66.2, 44.5, and 22.0 percent, respectively), said Malhotra.

“We believe that in order to change those norms, you need to mobilize communities at large, [and] that that needs to be something that is homegrown,” said Carla Koppell, senior coordinator for gender equality and women’s empowerment at USAID.

Besides simply preventing child marriage, Jennifer Redner, senior program officer at International Women’s Health Coalition, suggested promoting the empowerment of girls, addressing the unique needs of girls, and specifically targeting areas with high prevalence. These tactics require “both diplomatic and programmatic initiatives,” she said.

Malhotra, Koppell, and Redner were joined by fellow panelists from Population CouncilSave the Children,CARE Ethiopia,  Greeneworks, and the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) at the Wilson Center on June 17 to discuss efforts to ensure girls receive their basic rights, including access to health care. Senior Gender Adviser Michal Avni from USAID was the moderator for the panel, and the Interagency Gender Working Group’s Taskforce on Gender-Based Violence; its co-chairs, Population Reference Bureau and CARE; and USAID all co-sponsored the event.

Gatekeepers Help Reach Communities in Ethiopia

Ethiopia has some of the highest rates of child marriage in Africa. Forty-one percent of girls marry by age 18, and 14 percent of girls marry by age 15, said Dr. Annabel Erulkar, a senior associate and country director for Population Council.

Tesfa, meaning “hope” in Amharic, is an Addis Ababa-based foundation supported by ICRW and CARE Ethiopia. The foundation focuses on increasing access to education for disadvantaged children, and, explained Feven Tassew, the sexual and reproductive health coordinator for CARE Ethiopia, child marriage plays a large role in their programming.

“The project was launched in 2010, reaching more than 5,000 married, divorced, and widowed girls between the ages of 10 and 19,” Tassew said. “This project was particularly to mitigate the effects of child marriage through a focus on two enigmatic areas: sexual and reproductive health and economic empowerment.”

Tesfa trains these girls in “life skills” – resolving conflicts with their husbands, discussing money, using contraception – “which really helps the girls [in] negotiating the use of [health] services and other issues in the household and outside,” said Tassew. Jeff Edmeades, Tassew’s colleague from ICRW, said they’ve observed “sharp increases in savings activities” and “more instances of working for pay in their communities.”

Tassew noted that these educational workshops involve community input through the use of “gatekeepers,” whom community members nominate to act as liaisons with the project. These gatekeepers help challenge community attitudes towards child marriage, identify eligible girls for the program, and provide support to the girls’ groups.

Comprehensive Schooling in Egypt

In Egypt, another program focused on comprehensive girls’ education is also making an impact. Ishraq, which means “sunrise” in Arabic, is a community outreach and child education project run by Save the Children, the Population Council, and the Egyptian government’s National Council for Youth.

Many parents in Egypt keep their daughters out of school because they are concerned about their safety and the potential impact on their marriageability if anything bad were to happen to them, explained Patrick Crump, the associate vice president of program quality and impact at Save the Children. But out-of-school girls are particularly vulnerable to child marriage.

“Our hypothesis is if girls are given the chance to get back to school, they will be on a new life trajectory,” said Crump. “We have two main components: an empowerment package for girls, combined with intensive community engagement.”

Upon enrollment in Ishraq, each girl goes through a program of about 18 months that teaches literacy, life skills, and even sports, all within a safe space, he explained – it is literally walled off from the rest of the community, so girls can enter the school each day without fear of scrutiny. The program is designed to be intensive and therefore the total number of girls reached is still quite low, but, he said, “it is life changing.”

Like Tesfa in Ethiopia, Crump said close community engagement is crucial: “We literally went house to house…to find the girls, talk with them and their parents, [and] to try and encourage them to join.” The program also works with religious leaders to convince parents that schooling is a good investment, he explained: “We got religious leaders – Muslim sheikhs and Christian priests – to endorse the program and community meetings.”

Proving a Path Away From Child Marriage

Besides traditional and cultural norms, families will often marry off their girls young to offset economic burdens. “In these very remote, rural areas, you have these very large, very poor households, and so marrying a girl off early represents one less mouth to feed,” said Erulkar.

But with the same opportunities as their brothers, girls are not an economic drain on their families and can in fact be a boon. The economic empowerment of a young girl changes the trajectory of her life, said Margaret Greene, the director of research non-profit Greeneworks.

Edmeades said in the girls enrolled in Tesfa’s programming, they observed a nearly doubling in the percentage that reported working for pay. “It’s not just doing small-scale things,” he said. “It’s actually engaging in paid employment.”

In one of Population Council’s programs in Ethiopia, Berhane Hewan (Amharic for “light of Eve”), Erulkar explained that they offer families a goat to off-set the short-term benefits of marrying girls, followed by two chickens, 12 months later, and another two chickens, another 12 months later – always on the condition that their daughters remain in school.

Erulkar said that girls surveyed in Population Council’s programs in Ethiopia were three times more likely to be in school, and married girls were three times more likely to be using contraception, than those not in a program.

Koppell reiterated the need to focus on girls who are already married as well. “There is such a large number of people who are married under the age of 18, and we know that they are among the most vulnerable,” she said. “If we focus only on prevention, we are missing a large segment of the population that really needs attention.”

“Preventing child marriage is not like preventing a disease – you are changing the course of a person’s life,” said Greene. She urged the advocacy community needs to start thinking about what comes next and pushing for broader economic opportunities for girls and women.

“It’s not just we prevent someone from marrying at age 14 and then she’s going to be hanging around waiting until the appropriate age to marry. What is in that gap? What is there? We really need to know more about the economic alternatives for girls.”

Drafted by Swara Salih, edited by Schuyler Null

See a video of the event>>


  • Carla Koppell
    Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, USAID
  • Jennifer Redner (view presentation)
    Senior Program Officer, U.S. Foreign Policy at International Women’s Health Coalition
    Co-Chair, Girls Not Brides US Coalition
  • Anju Malhotra (view presentation)
    Principal Adviser, Gender and Rights, UNICEF
  • Feven Tassew (view presentation)
    CARE Ethiopia
  • Jeff Edmeades (view presentation)
    Social Demographer, International Center for Research on Women
  • Patrick Crump (view presentation)
    Associate Vice President, Program Quality and Impact, Save the Children
  • Annabel Erulkar (view presentation)
    Senior Associate & Country Director, Population Council
  • Margaret Greene
    Co-Author, Delivering Solutions; Director, GreeneWorks
  • Michal Avni
    Senior Gender Adviser, U.S. Agency for International Development

Moderated by

  • Sandeep Bathala
    Senior Program Associate, Environmental Change and Security Program, Maternal Health Initiative