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Solutions to End Child Marriage: What the Evidence Shows

Anju Malhotra
Ann Warner
Allison McGonagle
Susan Lee-Rife
Publication Date
June 1, 2011

"...[T]he results from this composite of evaluations lean toward positive findings, indicating that a set of strategies focusing on girls' empowerment, community mobilization, enhanced schooling, economic incentives and policy changes have improved knowledge, attitudes, and behavior related to child marriage prevention. The strongest, most consistent results are shown in a subset of programs fostering information, skills, and networks for girls in combination with community mobilization."

From the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), this brief summarises a systematic review of child marriage prevention programmes that have documented evaluations. Based on this synthesis of evaluated programmes, the authors offer an analysis of the broader implications for viable solutions to child marriage.

The opening sections of the report provide context; for example, "girls with low levels of schooling are more likely to be married early, and child marriage virtually puts an end to a girl's education". Various types of interventions have been developed to address this problem, using "comprehensive or integrated approaches that engage communities, families and policymakers, while attempting to impart to girls skills, opportunities and empowerment....Most importantly, existing reviews of initiatives to prevent child marriage indicate that few of these have been evaluated."

An excerpt from the report follows:

"In 2009, the World Health Organization (WHO) commissioned ICRW to undertake a systematic review that would use the established WHO methodology to identify, review and appraise research evidence relevant to the prevention of child marriage. In collaboration with WHO, ICRW conducted an extensive search of international, regional and WHO databases to identify program interventions and policy strategies that had documented measurement of change in child marriage-related behaviors and/or attitudes. We identified additional programs by conducting a general online search, examining websites of organizations known for their involvement with child marriage prevention and emailing relevant staff, and reviewing a wide range of program scans and other documents in the published and grey literature. In total, we identified more than 150 potentially relevant efforts to prevent child marriage. However, only 23 of these documented an attempt to measure change in child marriage-related behaviors, knowledge, or attitudes among relevant stakeholders. These programs were implemented between 1973 and 2009, with several of the programs continuing through the present, and evaluations were published between 1991 and 2010.

Our search suggests a significant increase in the number of interventions targeting child marriage during the last decade. The majority of programs work directly with girls, offering them opportunities to obtain skills and education. Most efforts engage with families and community members and attempt to change underlying social norms that perpetuate the practice of child marriage. Many interventions also offer economic incentives to parents to promote education and healthy behaviors as well as prevent child marriage...

In our systematic review of 23 evaluated programs, we identified five main strategies for delaying marriage or preventing child marriage...

  1. The vast majority (18 of 23) of evaluated programs in our review concentrate on girls themselves, focusing on training, building skills, sharing information, creating safe spaces and developing support networks [examples are provided]....Several programs that focus on empowering girls with information, skills and support systems have documented notable changes in knowledge, attitudes and behavior related to child marriage within only a few years, although none attribute these changes to any specific intervention component in the overall strategy.
  2. Parental and community engagement is the second most frequently used strategy, employed by 13 of 23 programs [examples are provided. These programmes] attempt to change social norms and forge a more supportive, less punitive environment for girls and families who are willing and ready to change the custom of early marriage. Enlisting parents and community members helps to mitigate possible unintended consequences of girls' participation in programs, and also reinforces a program's messages and activities....This strategy is generally implemented as an accompaniment to others, and it is difficult to assess the extent to which community education and mobilization efforts contribute to program failure or success, because most evaluations are not designed to isolate the impact of this component. At the same time, most program implementers argue that it may well be impossible to implement programs aimed at such significant social change without actively engaging community members...
  3. Of the 23 evaluated programs, nine addressed early marriage by improving opportunities for girls to attend and stay in school or by investing in the content or quality of girls' formal education. [Examples are provided]....For the most part, such interventions have yet to go to scale or be fully integrated into the educational system. These programs are generally yielding positive outcomes on delaying marriage, and the increasing evidence base may provide the necessary momentum for such integration...
  4. Poverty and the lack of viable income-generating options for girls and young women are important factors contributing to high child marriage rates. Increasingly, programs are beginning to address this economic motivation for families to marry daughters at an early age. Eight of the 23 programs employed this strategy for child marriage prevention... [Examples are provided]
  5. Many countries with high rates of child marriage have laws prohibiting the practice...[h]owever, policy and legal initiatives present some of the toughest evaluation challenges....Our review identified only four programs with evaluations for this strategy. Of these, three programs had a multi-strategy approach, combining legal advocacy with other community or girl-focused approaches. [Examples are provided]...In these cases, the contribution of this particular str ategy to program success cannot be untangled from other intervention components.

Program evaluations were examined for changes in knowledge, attitudes and behaviors related to child marriage among girls at risk, parents, community members and officials. The metrics of success include:

  • Increase in knowledge of negative consequences related to child marriage;
  • Increase in ideal age of marriage for girls;
  • More supportive attitudes for girls having a decision-making role in marriage;
  • Increase in age at marriage for girls (and boys); and
  • Smaller proportions of girls marrying before age 18.

To assess success on these outcomes, the vast majority of evaluations collected quantitative data; several relied exclusively on qualitative data; and many used mixed methods to corroborate and elucidate their findings. The degree of rigor used in the design and analysis of these interventions and their evaluation varied considerably...The evaluations were conducted by organizations with varying degrees of involvement in program implementation...

Figure 6 [page 22] presents results for knowledge and attitudinal change as documented by the 13 programs that focused on these types of outcomes. Results tend to lean positive, but are not conclusive. Two-thirds of the evaluations testing impact on knowledge and attitudes about child marriage prevention used less rigorous methodologies, and six out of 13, or about half, documented positive results. Five evaluations documented mixed results, while two documented no change. Contrary to the general impression that knowledge and attitudes concerning child marriage change more readily than behavior, evaluation results suggest these goals may be harder to achieve or to measure.

In contrast, results for behavior change related to delayed marriage are more positive, and the evaluation rigor is stronger as well (see Figure 7 [page 22]). Behavioral outcomes were measured by 18 evaluations, with positive results for nine, mixed results for seven, and no change for two programs...

The programs that documented the weakest results were primarily those that worked only at the community or macro level - mobilizing community members or changing laws or policies related to child marriage...

The strongest results were documented by programs that worked directly with girls to empower them with information, skills and resources...

A second category of promising new programs is...larger scale, school and incentive-based programs that involve national ministries, multilateral agencies like the World Bank, and experts from the health or education sectors. They also utilize some of the most rigorous evaluation methodologies by social science standards....Despite their mixed results, these interventions focus on two fundamental drivers of child marriage - lack of schooling and poverty - and they offer the promise of scale, which has been so difficult to achieve for community-based, girl-focused programs....

Agenda for Future Action

  • Find the right balance between depth versus scale and sustainability by relying on the experience of child marriage prevention experts, and also exploring new government and private sector platforms and partnerships in the education, health and economic sectors.
  • Explore alternative evaluation models that are better suited to the goals of social change, by tapping into emerging concepts such as 'systems change' and 'collective impact.'
  • Consider strategies beyond standard programmatic interventions, especially innovative social change mechanisms to speed up the pace of change, such as the power of 21st century technologies for communication, connection, education and mobilization.
  • Reconcile which model of change we expect the eradication of child marriage to follow: intervention delivery to the average individual followed by replication and scale up, or intervention delivery to pioneers, and reliance on diffusion to reach a tipping point."

ICRW website, September 6 2011.

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