The imperative of tackling child marriage has risen rapidly up the development agenda over the past decade and the energy and dedication that underpins this global movement was palpable at the recent Girls Not Brides Second Global Meeting in Kuala Lumpur.
GAGE, together with Plan, CARE and the International Rescue Committee, organised a panel discussion to spotlight the still poorly understood but very often heightened risks of child marriage that adolescent girls in diverse humanitarian and conflict-affected contexts face. The panel provided a very rich learning opportunity to hear from academic and activist colleagues working in the very divergent contexts of Gaza, South Sudan and the Syrian refugee communities in Jordan and Lebanon. Some of the key cross-cutting themes are captured in the figure below but please do view the full video here for a much more in-depth discussion.
Besides the opportunity to expand our understanding of the divergent patterning of child marriage and emerging promising approaches to tackle the practice and underlying gender norms, what was especially valuable was the opportunity to network with such a diverse and genuinely global collective of like-minded colleagues as the personal reflections from our GAGE colleagues from Gaza and Jordan in these two new blogs attest.
Participation in the Girls Not Brides second global meeting: reflections and insights
I am Bassam Abu Hamad, a Palestinian public health specialist, working in the social sector for more than 32 years. I am currently General Coordinator and Associate Professor at the School of Public Health, Al-Quds University (Jerusalem), and Manager of the Gaza branch. I am also a member of the GAGE Management Team and GAGE MENA Regional Director. Taking health as a broad social rather than medical concept, I am actively engaged in research related to public health, development, psychosocial issues, poverty, vulnerability, social protection and disability, particularly among women and adolescents.
Motivation to participate despite difficulties
Gaza has not enjoyed peace for several decades. Since the start of the second intifada in 2000, the 2 million people living here have suffered increasing economic and political isolation, including the imposition of a land, air and sea blockade by Israel in 2006. The blockade is still in place now, and places stringent restrictions on the movement of people, goods and services in and out of Gaza. The UN has repeatedly called it a ‘protracted human dignity crisis’ and ‘collective punishment’, in clear violation of international humanitarian law.
In the past five years, I have often not been able to participate in conferences despite being invited. I wasn’t sure I could attend this meeting: I had to travel to a third country (Egypt) in order to make it. The journey was complicated and arduous but it was worth it!
A growing interest in child marriage
On the second day of the Girls Not Brides global meeting, I participated in a session on the dynamics of child marriage in humanitarian settings, convened by the GAGE consortium.
Child marriage in Gaza is gradually declining. This reduction is attributed mostly to improvements in girls’ enrolment in secondary and tertiary education, rather than programmes aiming to eliminate child marriage.
Still, 30% of girls are pregnant before they reach 18 years and about half are mothers before age 20. Early marriage is rarely seen as a problem in Gaza. Indeed, there are many organisations that facilitate marriage, including child marriage and polygamy, such as through soft loans.
In summer 2017, I participated in the GAGE baseline study on the challenges adolescents, particularly girls, in Gaza face and the services available to them. In this, we looked at particularly vulnerable categories of boys and girls. Child marriage emerged as a very strong factor in vulnerability, with devastating impacts on girls. It is not an exaggeration to say that the most vulnerable of all adolescent girls were the ones who married early. Generally, girls who were married as children reported negative experiences, and said they felt regret, and were ‘broken’, ‘suffocated’ and ‘kidnapped’. This pushed me to want to learn more about this phenomenon. Therefore, despite the difficulties I had getting out of Gaza, participation in this conference has been very meaningful for me. I learnt a great deal.
Participation has been extremely useful
The opening session was friendly and full of energy and passion. Throughout the three following days, I participated in 11 sessions. Presenting the case of Gaza was especially important to orient participants about child marriage in a humanitarian context. It was also very interesting to see the variations across countries and cultures.
I learned a lot from hearing about the different programmes implemented to combat child marriage. While the drivers vary, the negative consequences are universal. It was interesting to see how girls’ and women’s education and empowerment has emerged as strong change strategies, in combination with other strategies like working with parliamentarians and economic capacity-building. Speakers emphasised the importance of developmental agencies providing not only resources but also technical expertise. Awareness-raising to change social norms and the involvement of key influencers, especially religious leaders, have proven very effective in combating child marriage. A lesson learnt is that collaborative multi-sectoral working and investment are required to have concrete outcomes.
The conference was also an effective forum to meet colleagues from the GAGE programme from the UK and the MENA region, and also to connect with colleagues from other organisations.
Participation in the Girls Not Brides second global meeting: ‘The first day of my future’
My name is Sarah Alheiwidi, and I am a qualitative researcher with the GAGE programme in Jordan. This was my first time presenting research findings. It was actually my first time presenting anything on such a large scale. I was so excited and nervous about how I would do, especially because I was talking about girls from my country. I am a Syrian girl; I know how these girls feel about losing their country. Also, I feel what they are feeling, I am thinking what they’re thinking, because I also am a 21-year-old girl, and I feel like I’m still an adolescent inside. I was very conscious about how they felt about giving us information about their experiences. I wanted to deliver the information just like I heard it, to make sure their voices were heard.
Efforts to tackle child marriage should not overlook programming for divorced girls
My presentation on the drivers of child marriage among Syrian refugees ended up going very well. The session was so friendly and comfortable. I focused on the experiences of child marriage through the eyes of divorced adolescent girls and programming implications.
I presented emerging research findings from the GAGE formative research in Jordan, starting with the challenges presented by the adolescent girls we spoke to including violence and early marriage: physical, psychological and verbal violence by husbands and the wider extended family. I then concluded with the actions we need to take for adolescent girls so they can have a better life and end the violence and the child marriage they are forced into, including:
- Providing free and accessible legal aid and raising community awareness to combat stigma;
- Raising awareness about divorced girls’ specific needs among service providers;
- Raising community awareness about steps girls/ young women can take in case of marital violence;
- Providing psychological counselling to support girls exiting abusive marriages;
- Providing economic empowerment opportunities; and
- Ensuring divorced girls can re-enter education and/or non-formal education.
- I hope that Syrian girls from refugee communities whom I know can be supported to pursue a full education.
Reactions and reflections
I am thrilled with the success of the presentation and the session. I was in the lift and I heard some people talking about how good the session was; so many people were asking questions without knowing that I had been involved in the presentation. They said that they usually left sessions 15 minutes before the end but they had stayed for an additional half an hour in this case. This made me feel so confident and so happy, that we had made progress and been successful.
I am delighted to have been able to participate in this global meeting for Girls Not Brides, in Malaysia. It was a wonderful opportunity to talk on behalf of a lot of vulnerable girls I’ve met and to pass on their experiences, which they asked me to let others know about. I know now that I can make a difference. Before I started doing this job I thought researchers just did their research and that was the end of it; now, though, I believe that researchers and activists do their best and work very hard to share their findings in as faithful a manner as they can.