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Children, Not Wives: Tackling Harmful Gender-Based Norms

We recently welcomed International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and Girls on 25th November. Indeed, this date starts off the period now broadly known as 16 days of Activism to eliminate Violence against women and girls (VAWG) where men and women worldwide are called to speak out on issues that are too often neglected – including the terrible practice of early and forced marriage. Shockingly, 1 in 5 girls worldwide is married before the age of 18. This comes with heavy emotional, physical, sexual and financial consequences.

Now is the time to say no to gender-based violence. With 1 in 3 women worldwide having experienced physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime; that’s more than a staggering one billion women or girls alive today. For girls in particular, early/forced marriage is a major challenge. At Islamic Relief UK, we’re working to put an end to this abuse.

I’m delighted to share with you some of the work that we’re doing to support this important mission as part of Islamic Relief UK’s work to support women and girls and our Honour Her campaign.

Early/forced marriage: Too much, too young

Early/forced marriage (EFM) is a key human rights issue. It is a violation of women and girls’ right to sexual, emotional and physical health and a child’s right to education. EFM is unfortunately such a prevalent problem that UNICEF estimates that as many as 12 million girls a year are married before the age of 18. On average, that’s nearly 23 child-age marriages every minute.

The factors at play behind this tragic phenomenon are often related to families’ socio-economic circumstances. Many families living in poverty feel pressured into ensuring their daughters are married at a young age, for fear of not being able to meet their child’s basic needs (including food and shelter), or if struggling to pay for their education.

Furthermore, harmful socio-cultural attitudes towards women and girls often push women and girls into marriage against their will – even though girls are emotionally, physically and sexually immature for marriage and unable to actively consent. These vulnerabilities are exacerbated during times of conflict and natural disaster among (often already) struggling communities. In fact, a staggering 90% of cases of EFM take place in fragile states.

The impacts of EFM on girls affected last a lifeline. When a girl is forced to marry as a child, she is far more likely to face abuse and violence, and become committed to a life of domestic and reproductive labour. The earlier in life she conceives, the higher the risk of complications during pregnancy and as a result a cycle of intergenerational poverty begins. Her chances of finishing school diminish and with it any prospect of self-sufficiency and independence. This in turn impacts upon wider families, communities and societies. The harmful effects of EFM therefore u span across time and society.

How are we fighting EFM?

Protecting children and promoting their fundamental human rights is central to our work at Islamic Relief. One of the ways that we’re working to empower girls worldwide is through our Orphan Sponsorship (OSP) programme. We’re supporting children who have lost one or both guardians and we’re delighted that this programme has benefitted hundreds of thousands of children and their carers since its inception.

We’re working to provide children living in female-headed households with better, brighter prospects for the future. Doing so can play a huge role in breaking the cycle of poverty and in reducing the chances of marrying early.

By breaking down the barriers which children face in going to school and accessing essential health care, we’re working with young girls and their families to fight the poverty and structural inequality which can often put them at risk of EFM. We’re providing sustainable solutions to poverty to enable families to become self-sufficient over the long-term.

Our country teams are also able to work closely with the families of children at risk and their wider networks to transform socio-cultural attitudes. It’s by challenging these norms that we can improve the social, economic and physical wellbeing of children, their families and wider communities.

We’re therefore addressing the root causes of early/forced marriage and providing financial support to families at risk. Through increased access to education and health services, girls are being protected from early/forced marriage and can look forward to a healthier, more prosperous and independent future.

One of the many countries where we’re seeing the successes of our orphan sponsorship programmes is Bangladesh. Here, our alternate model of orphan sponsorship (ALO) has been nominated for a Bond award for its innovative approach and transformational results. The ALO takes a multi-pronged approach to protecting children by addressing several core social issues that lead to girls being forced to marry during childhood. This includes:

  • Economic empowerment: Vulnerable women are trained in business and trade skills so they can increase their incomes. This can help them lift out of poverty and as a result, their daughters are far less likely to be subjected to EFM.
  • Educational provision: A key pre-requisite of being in this programme is that each sponsored child in the family must attend school. An agreement is signed with each family, stipulating that the child must be in school and cannot be married. If a family is initially hesitant to send girls to school, we mediate in a culturally-sensitive manner to ensure that we all come to an agreement. The results of this engagement have been significant, with dramatic increases in school enrolment and retention rates.
  • Social change: We’re supporting campaigns from the grassroots to the national level which challenge deep-rooted social norms of the role of women and girls in society. This is crucial to improving expectations of what a girl’s life can and should be like.  

Looking ahead: What do we have planned?

Despite all of our achievements, there’s lots more work to be done! In Nepal and India, we’re starting to launch programmes aimed at creating caring environments for orphans affected by disaster and who are particularly at risk of EFM.

We will provide key educational and health services to these girls, as well the means to earn a sustainable living, to help their families move out of poverty. At the same time, we’ll be raising awareness of existing social and governmental schemes/entitlements which are too often not understood.

Socio-cultural change, of course, doesn’t happen overnight. Sustainability is key for any long-term change. To achieve this, we’ll be engaging adolescent boys and girls in reporting systems so they can highlight where EFM is taking place. This ensures that communities are empowered to protect their most vulnerable children after the project ends.

We believe that the key to change is taking a holistic approach and working in partnership with local communities. And that’s what’s top of our agenda, because we know that only then can we address the root causes of early/forced marriage.

Islamic Relief is working across our family to ensure greater gender equality worldwide. Through the UN 16 days of activism against violence against women and girls (VAWG), we’re highlighting the work we’re carrying out both nationally and internationally to fight VAWG and empower women financially, socially and emotionally. We’re also showing dedicated supporters how they too can combat gender-based violence. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for all the latest news, actions and blogs.

You can also find out more about orphan sponsorship here.

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