Girls Not Brides is a global partnership of more than 1,000 civil society organisations committed to ending child marriage and enabling girls to fulfil their potential. They hosted the largest ever meeting of advocates committed to ending child marriage recently in Kuala Lumpur, with 500 participants from 74 countries.
The aim of the global meeting is to connect, learn, inspire and achieve our common goal of ending child marriages. The gathering presents not only opportunities for networking but also to exchange thoughts and best practices on ending child marriages.
I attended the global meeting as a person who designs, delivers and evaluates school and community-based comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) programmes as a solution to address the issues of underage sexual activities, teenage pregnancies and ensuring young people are better equipped to access and demand for their rights.
Participants attended a range of inspiring and informative sessions; topics discussed included tackling child marriage in humanitarian contexts, tools and approaches to changing social norms and the cost of inaction.
As the designer of school-based comprehensive sexuality education modules, it is imperative for me to learn what are the best practices in the form of prevention education to end child marriages.
In the session “Moving Beyond What Works: Translating Evidence Into Policies and Programmes For Girls”, Thoai Ngo from the Population Council (USA) presented key findings from a research conducted on school and community-based interventions implemented in 15 countries in South Asia and Africa with higher rates of child marriages in the past 20 years.
The research covered four types of intervention approaches which were empowerment (life skills and livelihood training, gender rights awareness training, reproductive health training and exposure to future careers); community (dialogues and street theatre); schooling (aid, tutoring and encouragement to stay in school) and economic (conditional/ unconditional cash or asset transfer).
The empowerment intervention was found to be the most effective in reducing child marriage.
“Proven approaches in Malawi include the use of community theatre, where we provide production companies with the correct (and relevant) information; and educate teachers so the information will trickle down to target audience,” shared panelist MacBain Mkandawire.
As a person who delivers CSE modules, we believe it is a key element in delaying the initiation of sexual intercourse, decreasing numbers of sexual partners and increasing the use of contraception in young people.
In the session “CSE: Promoting Gender Equality, Empowering Young People and Ending Gender Based Violence”, strong evidence was presented on the effectiveness of CSE, and the fact that most young people globally do not yet have access to it was highlighted.
Venkatraman Chandra-Mouli from the World Health Organisation gave real life examples of the challenges in sustaining programmes in communities.
He says we must expect to make compromises to market our programmes according to the sensitivities and culture of our audience, and get the community involved to gain support.
From the examples given, it is proven that societal transformation is possible with the strong support of the community, the government and global funding.
For example, in countries like Uganda, Pakistan, and Nigeria, NGOs like Rutgers, Aahung and Action Health Incorporated formed state level advocacy committees, worked with religious leaders, got teachers unions involved and proactively engaged with their target audience to get community support.
Eventually, some of these programmes were replicated in schools.
According to Chandra-Mouli, there is more progress in advancing CSE in Islamic and poorer countries compared to the rich, more liberal western countries because the coalition advocated better.
More positively, a report by Unicef suggests that the digital space provides new opportunities for sexuality education.
There is increasing evidence that young people are using the Internet as a key source of information about sex.
“The challenge is to make sure they find the right information,” said Unicef’s Regional Gender Adviser (East Asia & Pacific) Gerda Binder.
The evidence provided from this report is very helpful in convincing funders to invest more in providing correct information by digitalising CSE contents to reach out to a wider audience.
Countries are increasingly recognising the importance of equipping young people with the knowledge and skills necessary to help them make responsible choices, particularly in a context where new information and communication technologies and social media play an increasingly important role in their lives.
The global Girls Not Brides meeting had allowed participants to have difficult conversations and to learn from each other.
Through CSE, we will be able to address not only sexual and reproductive health of children and young people but also other key issues affecting their health such as cyberbullying, sexting, poor mental health and alcohol, tobacco and drug abuse.
In her closing speech, the Girls Not Brides Co-founder and global meeting chair, Mabel van Oranje called for action: “If we want to end child marriage in one generation, we have to accelerate.”
With the knowledge I have now we can definitely implement proven ways of scaling up our programmes to reach more girls, and we will.