Addis Ababa Alliance to end child marriage

On 7 and 8 June 2011, 70 women and men from more than 55 grassroots and global organisations working to end child marriage around the world, came together in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. This strategic planning meeting – to discuss the formation of an ‘Alliance to end child marriage’, was initiated by The Elders and attended by Dr Gro Brundtland, Mrs Graça Machel, Mrs Mary Robinson and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

The aims of the meeting were to:

  • Share information about effective approaches that address child marriage;
  • Explore how to work together to give child marriage more visibility on the global policy agenda;
  • Discuss the mission, objectives and practicalities of forming an alliance; and
  • Discuss how creating an alliance can support each others’ work and accelerate the pace of change on child marriage.

Programme implementers, experts and advocates from 23 countries took part in this historic meeting. They brought a wealth of expertise and experience on the issue of child marriage, a harmful traditional practice that affects millions of children, predominantly girls, in many countries and across religions. Participants noted that there is no religion that endorses or promotes child marriage.

As a fundamental breach of human rights, child marriage affects an estimated 10 million girls per year. It curtails their education, endangers their health and impedes efforts to fight poverty. It hinders the achievement of six of the eight Millennium Development Goals. Participants agree that delaying marriage, investing in girls’ education and their development can bring significant benefits to girls, their families and their communities.

The strategic planning meeting began with a forthright discussion by the four Elders. Archbishop Tutu, Chair of The Elders, described the scale of the problem of child marriage as devastating and said he was “shattered” to meet Ethiopian women and girls who had married as young as 8 or 10. “You can understand something cerebrally,” he said, “but it is not the same when it is translated into flesh and blood.” Archbishop Tutu spoke positively about his conversations with Orthodox Christian and Islamic representatives in Ethiopia who have spoken publicly against child marriage.

Graça Machel, an international advocate for children’s and women’s rights, was passionate about the importance of giving a voice to the millions of girls who are “a silent part of our society”. She addressed the issue of tradition, arguing that, as traditions are made by people, they can be changed. “We must be respectful,” she said, “but we must also have the courage to say that change is necessary in relation to harmful traditional practices.”

Dr Gro Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway and a doctor by profession, described child marriage as a hidden, yet central issue in reaching fundamental development objectives such as health and education. She said that it deserves far more attention than it currently receives.

Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, highlighted the importance of empowering girls. She encouraged the Alliance to work towards ensuring that girls are not married before the age of 18, in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

A new report by the International Center for Research on Women, “Solutions to end child marriage: What the evidence shows” was presented to the meeting, providing a systematic review of 23 child marriage prevention programmes that have documented evaluations.

Case studies were also presented by representatives of organisations working to ending child marriage in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, Kenya, Senegal and Yemen.

Effective interventions described in the presentations included:

  • Provision of information and facilitated community discussion on gender equality, leading to the abolition of harmful practices and the empowerment of girls and women;
  • Improved services, especially education and incentives to keep girls in school as well as programmes to support married girls; and
  • Establishment and implementation of legal frameworks that reflect international conventions and human rights standards.

It was repeatedly stated that these interventions cannot succeed in isolation; efforts must be complementary and interlinked.

In subsequent discussions, participants emphasised the need for a holistic, multi-faceted, rights-based approach to ending child marriage. Recognising that ending child marriage requires discussion within communities, leading to a collective agreement to end the practice, they stressed that global and national efforts should ultimately support local change.

Encouragingly, participants feel that change is already taking place, and that an Alliance will help to accelerate that process. Scaling up would enable a far larger number of communities to better fulfil the potential of their children, especially their girls. A number of participants said they wanted to build national alliances for change, as well as a global Alliance.

The first day ended with a special session on Ethiopia, the venue of the meeting, where 49 per cent of girls marry before they reach 18. The panellists discussed successful collaborative efforts involving government, international agencies, civil society and local communities to address child marriage. They also discussed their aim to scale up these projects.

On the second day of the meeting, participants discussed how to build an Alliance to end child marriage. They reflected on lessons learned from successful coalitions and discussed the mission statement, membership principles and objectives of the Alliance, as well as organisational practicalities.

Participants want the Alliance to help develop common language and messaging on the issue of child marriage, as well as allow for the sharing of information on best practices, with an emphasis on local-level change with global support.

The Alliance will draw attention to the need for more information on the magnitude of child marriage, as well as programmatic initiatives that have helped to prevent or end it. By raising awareness the Alliance also aims to mobilize political will and financial and other resources to address child marriage and provide support for married girls.

The group brainstormed potential names for the Alliance, with a rich variety of ideas for further development. Participants stressed the importance of being able to communicate in multiple languages.

At the end of the meeting, participants declared their support for the creation of an Alliance and willingness to work together to achieve it. They expressed their commitment to the establishment of an Alliance that embraces values of trust, transparency, collaboration and respect.

Dr Brundtland said: “The word I want to focus on at the end of this meeting is ‘achievable’. We want to work for results. Now is the time to break the silence, break down the barriers to ensuring that women and girls can be empowered and educated to make decisions about their own lives.”

Participants agreed that next steps could include:

  • Finalise the mission statement, membership principles and name of the Alliance;
  • Formally sign-up Alliance members in the coming months;
  • Establish an internal communication system;
  • Pursue outreach and recruitment of further members;
  • Develop a strategic action plan and identify short and medium-term goals;
  • Develop a communications strategy including a website;
  • Appoint an Alliance coordinator and support staff;
  • Organisation of events by Alliance members to raise awareness of the issue of  child marriage and the establishment of the Alliance; and
  • Explore the formation of national alliances.

The Elders are grateful to the many individuals and partner organisations who contributed to the success of the meeting. They also wish to thank the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the NoVo Foundation, and the Open Society Foundations for their generous financial assistance in making this event possible.