May 6, 2016 Françoise Girard, President of the International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC) Originally Published in Women and the World

Taking the Fight against Child Marriage to the Next Level

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“Tomorrow, I have to start over…it will be a long time before I come back to my parents’ home, to their neighborhood, and maybe it will be with a child,” thought Danedjo Hadidja, fearfully, the night before her wedding.

 

At 15, her uncle planned to marry her off to a man in his 30s, as his second wife. In this part of northern Cameroon, more than 70 percent of girls are married before they turn 18. These marriages occur without the girls’ consent—robbing them of their childhoods, forcing them out of school, trapping them in poverty, and putting them at high risk of dangerous pregnancy and childbirth complications, HIV infection, and domestic violence.

Danedjo didn’t want this to be her fate. With the help of a social worker, she escaped before the wedding ceremony. She went to school and worked part-time. Later, she and other girls formed a community organization for girls who had avoided or survived child marriage, “so that our little sisters did not go through the same thing.”

Fourteen years later, Danedjo is a respected leader in her community. She is the president of the Association pour la Promotion de l’Autonomie et des Droits de la Fille/Femme (Association for the Promotion of the Autonomy and Rights of the Girl/Woman, or APAD).

The road was sometimes bumpy, Danedjo notes: “It has not been easy to stand in front of traditional leaders or parents to talk about early and forced marriage. They would insult us: ‘Oh you are young. What do you know about life? What do you know about marriage?’”

But APAD’s persistence paid off. Danedjo and her peers have changed cultural attitudes and beliefs in their community, empowered girls to know their rights, and provided them with mentorship and skills to earn a living. The group has enlisted more than 150 survivors of child marriage to speak out against the practice across northern Cameroon.

Earlier this month, Danedjo joined other child marriage survivors, activists, experts, and policymakers at Girl Summit DC 2015 to talk about solutions to end the practice.

Youth- and women-led organizations like APAD may be best-positioned to create real transformation in their communities, but they run on shoe-string budgets. World leaders may now be speaking out about empowering girls, but this hasn’t translated into major investment or change on the ground.

Momentum to change this is building in the United States. Earlier this year, President Obama and the First Lady announced “Let Girls Learn,” a $250 million initiative that brings different government agencies together to tackle the factors that prevent girls from getting an education, including: child marriage, early pregnancy, economic constraints, and physical and sexual violence. For more than three years, IWHC has called for such a “whole-of-government” approach that addresses the whole lives of girls.

At Girl Summit DC 2015, the audience heard from U.S. government leaders—from the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Millennium Challenge Corporation, Peace Corps, and PEPFAR—about their contribution to Let Girls Learn. They also addressed how their agencies are coordinating beyond this initiative to create an Adolescent Girl Strategy, which will set out a holistic approach to meeting the needs of adolescent girls for the entire U.S. Government.

Child marriage is rooted in the fact that girls are not valued as much as boys. The solution to this scourge lies not only in keeping girls in schools, but also in investing in their sexual and reproductive health, building their economic and life skills, providing them with mentorship, and working with men, boys, and traditional and religious leaders to change the behaviors and norms that keep girls down. The way forward is clear; now we must turn rhetoric into action.

This week, leaders and representatives of civil society organizations will gather in Zambia for the African Girls’ Summit. This summit will give impetus to the African Union’s Campaign to End Child Marriage on the continent with the highest rates of the practice.  IWHC and its partners will be there, calling on “hot spot” countries to prioritize elimination of child marriage.

I have seen the difference APAD has made in Cameroon: long-lasting, generational change. Leadership from the Obama administration could take these efforts to the next level, resulting in immediate benefits to girls, their families, and communities around the world.

Photo courtesy of: Dominic Chavez / World Bank

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