Girls Not Brides Interview with Matilda Branson – Let’s End Child Marriage in One Generation
Girls Not Brides is a global partnership of more than 1000 civil society organisations from over 95 countries committed to ending child marriage and enabling girls to fulfil their potential.
Girls Not Brides members bring child marriage to global attention, build an understanding of what it will take to end child marriage and call for the laws, policies and programmes that will make a difference in the lives of millions of girls.
As Senior Policy & Advocacy Officer (National) at Girls Not Brides, Matilda tracks policy developments and formulates policy positions on child marriage at the national and regional levels, and is responsible for identifying international advocacy opportunities on ending child marriage, particularly around UN resolutions and implementation of the Global Goals for Sustainable Development.
1. Can you tell us a bit about what triggered you to start Girls Not Brides and the story behind it?
Child marriage has been practised for centuries around the world, undermining the potential of girls everywhere. Yet, eight years ago, public awareness of child marriage and political attention devoted to the practice around the world was disproportionately low, especially in light of the 12 million girls affected each year, and the devastating consequences that it had throughout their lives. Civil society activists and organisations had been pioneering innovative solutions to tackle child marriage for decades.
However, their efforts were isolated, uncoordinated and lacked visibility and attention. The Elders – a group of independent global leaders brought together by Nelson Mandela to promote human rights and social justice – decided to make child marriage the flagship issue of their efforts to advance gender equality. In September 2011, Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage was formally launched and in 2013, we became an independent charity and we continue to grow.
We are now 1300 civil society organisations in over 100 countries. Members are based throughout Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the Americas and we share the conviction that every girl has the right to lead the life that she chooses and that, by ending child marriage, we can achieve a safer, healthier and more prosperous future for all.
2. Where does child marriage happen more frequently?
Child marriage is a truly global problem that cuts across countries, cultures, religions and ethnicities. Child brides can be found in every region in the world, from the Middle East to Latin America, South Asia to Europe. Every year, 12 million girls marry before the age of 18, and over 650 million women alive today were married as children.
We see the highest prevalence of child marriage in West and Central Africa (3 in 4 girls marry at the age of 18), Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. However, child marriage is truly a global issue, and we see child marriage happening in Western contexts too, in Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States among other countries.
3. What are some of the ways you think that child marriage can end in one generation?
The causes of child marriage are complex. The practice is rooted in gender inequality and exacerbated by gender and social norms, poverty, lack of education, insecurity and a lack of alternative options for girls. The impact of the practice is devastating, resulting in girls having increased risk of teen pregnancy and maternal health issues, HIV infection, domestic violence, reduced access to education and being stuck in a vicious cycle of poverty. Therefore ending child marriage requires work across all sectors and at all levels. It requires us to understand the complex drivers behind the practice in different contexts and adapt our interventions accordingly.
Five years ago Girls Not Brides held extensive consultations with its members and experts across the world to put together a Theory of Change which outlines four distinct interventions that are critical to address child marriage – namely empowering girls themselves to be agents of their own lives, mobilising families and communities to take action, providing vital service for girls such as health and education service provision, and implementing laws and policies which create an enabling environment for girls and women.
4. Do all the countries have a minimum age for marriage?
Most countries around the world have laws that set a minimum age of marriage, usually at age 18. However, many countries provide exceptions to the minimum age of marriage with parental or judicial consent, which can create legal loopholes which may allow girls to still be married as children. This is particularly problematic in contexts where loopholes allow underage girls who have been raped or who have become pregnant, to be forced to marry the perpetrator.
5. Most of the times, child marriage happens in rural areas with few resources to implement the law. What education methods did you develop in order to strengthen child protection systems in those circumstances?
When we are talking about child marriage, people often automatically think that child marriage must only happen to girls living in poverty in rural areas. While this does happen, it is important to note that child marriage can happen anywhere and in some contexts may be just as high in urban settings.
However, in resource-poor contexts or in rural areas, we see our members do amazing work with very little – this is where the importance of informal or community-based justice systems and child protection systems come into play. We see Girls Not Brides civil society members doing amazing work at the community level. They work with very few resources in community groups reporting domestic violence against girls and support their access to domestic violence support, working as volunteer health workers helping girls and women access health information and services, or working to raise awareness in their community about the negative impacts of child marriage on girls, families and communities.
6. How does your organisation approach and help child marriage victims?
Girls Not Brides is a global partnership of civil society organisations and it is the 1300 members who work directly both with girls who have escaped child marriage and with already married girls. It is important to mention that even though much of the work we do focuses on preventing child marriage, it is important not to forget already married girls and women, and supporting them. Our members do incredible work in terms of supporting married girls and women – linking them to informal education opportunities, developing livelihood skills, having access to essential services that they might need, and connecting them to other women in order not to feel disconnected and isolated.
7. Who is the main team that forms Girls Not Brides and what are their roles?
The Girls Not Brides secretariat is based in London, and we have offices and staff in Delhi, Nairobi, Dakar and Mexico City too. The function of the secretariat is to support our civil society members in different countries in terms of learning on what works and doesn’t work to address child marriage, supporting their advocacy, amplifying their voice at national, regional and global levels, and supporting them in their capacity development to work together collectively, as we believe we are stronger together.
8. Was it difficult to get contributors and investors to support your foundation? How did you approach them?
Girls Not Brides is not a foundation in itself. It is a global partnership of civil society organisations that the secretariat works to support by linking our members to funding opportunities they might not otherwise hear about. We also advocate for more funding towards ending child marriage globally, given the scale of the problem.
9. What was the most remarkable story or the moment you remember up to date that you lived with Girls Not Brides?
Three years ago, I had the honour of meeting an amazing woman called Chief Theresa Kachindamoto, from the Central region of Malawi. As the paramount chief of the Dedza district, she has the informal authority for more than 900,000 people in the district. After working as a secretary for a local college for 27 years, she was selected as the chief. When she assumed her role and started talking to people in the district, she was shocked to see the incredibly high numbers of girls getting married and pregnant as children.
In response to this, she started door to door campaigning and working with mother’s groups, with teachers and with young people from the villages to raise awareness about the negative impact of child marriage. She used her power as a chief to annul and stop child marriage in the district and has now stopped more than 800 girls being married. It is humbling and inspiring how many people work at the grassroots level to prevent and respond to child marriage and help girls to fulfil their potential.
10. Are there any future projects or plans you have in mind for Girls Not Brides?
We are always working to advance our work to end child marriage across the world, as it is a truly global issue. In the coming years, we are expanding and deepening our work in regions of the world such as Latin America and the Caribbean and in West and Central Africa where there are very high rates of child marriage. We are also looking at supporting child marriage in humanitarian contexts – such as refugee camps – as we know that child marriage can rocket in emergency and humanitarian contexts.
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