Together lifting Her Choice to a next level

Participants of the Her Choice planning workshop look back on three fruitful days at the office of Her Choice alliance member ICDI in Leiden. Six from our 27 local partners from Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Benin, Mali and Ethiopia were participating this week in writing an application together with the Dutch team.

The last three days participants were writing and working together on an application so we can lift the Her Choice program to a next level. In this way we hope we can keep on doing our work, also in the future, for the thousands of girls who are getting married too early worldwide. Four of the six participating local partners look back on a fruitful week: Anbreen Ajaib, executive director of the Pakistani ngo Bedari, Jamir Islam, program coordinator of The Hunger Project Bangladesh, Haoua Bagayogo of the Malinese ngo Enda Mali (and coordinator of Her Choice in Mali) and Alemu Abegaz of the Ethiopian ngo WCAT.

Anbreen Ajaib from Pakistan: enthusiasm, commitment and togetherness

If Anbreen Ajaib, executive director of the Pakistani ngo Bedari (local partner of Her Choice alliance member ICDI), could choose three words to describe this week’s workshop, they would be enthusiasm, commitment and togetherness: ‘All of us local partners were very enthusiastic discussing all the topics. This week’s program reminded us how together we are as Her Choice. We’re all very committed to the same cause: to tackle child marriage.’

According to UNICEF, Pakistan has the sixth highest number of absolute child brides in the world: almost 2 million. 21% of girls in Pakistan are married before their 18th birthday and 3% are married before the age of 15. Her Choice in Pakistan, Ajaib tells us, feels like ‘My Choice’: ‘It is not just the funding, we really want to work on tackling child marriage in our country. This program is very close to our heart.’

Time to move forward

Now it’s time to move forward, according to Ajaib: ‘We have done a lot of work; we have been strengthening girls and the communities they live in and started successful projects like the bicycle project with which we helped girls on their way to independency by providing them bikes. It turned out to be a powerful tool to empower girls and even reduce child marriage rates.Now it’s time to move forward and expand our lobby and advocacy at a provincial and national level, as a strong strategic alliance.’

For effective advocacy, Ajaib believes in collaboration and positive engagement with the government: ‘In this way we can bring effective legislation and implementation mechanisms, instead of doing destructive criticism. We have experienced that when provided with objective situation analysis, and technical assistance required by the government, policy makers are ready to take the lead and the goal of gender equality can be achieved together.’

Jamir Islam from Bangladesh: we will succeed in tackling child marriage

Jamir Islam, program coordinator of The Hunger Project Bangladesh, in convinced of the success of Her Choice: ‘I’m sure we will succeed in tackling child marriage one day.’ Although the government of Bangladesh has committed to end child marriage completely in 2041, the prevalence rates are alarming. 59% of girls in Bangladesh are married before their 18th birthday and 22% are married before the age of 15. According to UNICEF, Bangladesh has the fourth highest prevalence rate of child marriage in the world, and the second highest number of absolute child brides; almost 4.5 million. Islam: ‘Gender inequality is a major issue in our country. A lot of girls and women are oppressed or behind men.’

A lot has to do with cultural and social norms that are fostering child marriage, Islam tells us, but also with corrupted authorities: ‘For example, tampering of age by local government authorities and fake marriage registration by marriage registers who take bribes only increase child marriage. Late marriage registration and absence of judicial punishment also encourages child marriage. And because of the current strong Child Marriage Act, many child marriages occur without marriage registration, which makes girls very vulnerable. Therefore, Islam argues, a strong civil society is needed to hold the authorities accountable, but also a responsible government that enforces the law.

If we want to have a better future for the girls in Bangladesh, and we want to have an inclusive society, national and international collaboration is crucial, according to Islam: ‘Only when we work together on the same agenda and share our experiences and lessons learned, we can create pressure on the government to really work on women’s rights.’ Islam is therefore proud on the National Girl Child Advocacy Forum, a network of 186 Civil Society Organizations in Bangladesh, that was founded by The Hunger Project Bangladesh and that carries out gender and girls rights-focused awareness campaigns. ‘In the next phase of Her Choice we want to make this network even stronger.’

Islam hopes to support many more girls in the next five years to come: ‘We’ve seen now that if we empower girls, they can take decision themselves and dare to stand up to their men and families so that they can lead healthier and happier lives and give their children a better future.’

Haoua Bagayogo from Mali: enjoying the good cooperation

Houa Bagayogo, coordinator of the Her Choice Program in Mali and director of the Malinese ngo Enda Mali (local partner of Her Choice alliance member Stichting Kinderpostzegels Nederland), has been enjoying the good cooperation between the six local partners and the Dutch team this week: ‘Every country supplied a piece of the puzzle this week. Now we have to put it all together in a well written application. I’ve good hopes that it will bring us what we worked so hard for.’  

Last year, more single girls have been trained on SRHR in MAli: the share of trained single girls went from 8% in 2016 to 80% in 2018. The share of single girls who feel they can consult a source on SRHR issues, went from 33% to 78%. For the next five years to come, the program wants to focus much more on the education of SRHR of both youth and adolescent girls and boys: ‘Working with boys and girls has started in in some regions, but this should be systematic and in all the regions we work in.’ But to really empower girls and women, there should be more attention for lobby and advocacy, both on local, national and international level, Bagayogo argues.

52% of girls in Mali are married before the age of 18 and 17% are married before their 15th birthday. According to UNICEF, Mali has the sixth highest prevalence rate of child marriage in the world. As FGM and child marriages are rooted deeply in local culture and traditions, Bagayogo tells us, an effective change is only attainable if not only women, but also men and other key figures in the community change their opinion and attitudes towards child marriage and FGM: ‘In our program, we should not only condemn the boys and men, but work with them as change agents.’

Bagayogo is proud of her country being a national partnership of Girls not Brides, the global partnership that has over a 1000 civil society organisations committed to ending child marriage. Since the set up of the partnership, all organization members work more and more together, Bagayogo tells us: ‘It enhances the effectiveness of our work while rendering it more legitimate. In this way we can make an even bigger impact. For example, thanks to a more coordinated way of working, the share of girls who reported feeling able to oppose marriage increased markedly: it went from 23% in 2016 to 53% in 2018. Only together we could have achieved this.’

Alemu Abegaz from Ethiopia: pushing the government at different levels

Alemu Abegaz is Deputy Director of the Ethiopian civil society organization Wabe Children’s Aid and Training (WCAT), one of Her Choice’s 27 partners in the field (and local partner of alliance member Stichting Kinderpostzegels Nederland).  The continuation of Her Choice has great contribution for WCAT and its beneficiaries, Abegaz explains: ‘Child marriage is a deeply rooted traditional practice in our country.’ Changing the mindset of people requires time and resources: ‘In the last three years of the program, we’ve been able to accelerate the learning and dialogue with girls, stakeholders and partners. We’re just in an early stage of registering results from the program. To bring a significant impact on the lives of girls, the program should continue.’

40% of girls in Ethiopia are married before the age of 18 and 14% are married before their 15th birthday. According to UNICEF, Ethiopia has the 15th highest prevalence rate of child marriage in the world and the fifth highest absolute number of child brides: over 2.1 million. But the prevalence rate of married girls is decreasing, Abegaz tells us: ‘Her Choice is contributing a lot in the education and protection of girls in Ethiopia by focusing on tackling child marriage and FGM. One of our successful projects is the training of teachers so that they’re able to give education on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), to both girls and boys. We are also working on ending child marriage through edutainment by club members. Because the actors themselves are writing the scripts and poem, this has really taken hold of reality. The impact in the community and at schools is therefore enormous.’

Only four years ago the situation on child marriage was completely different, Abegaz recalls: ‘Before 2016 less attention was given to child marriage in our country, it was not a priority of the government. It was very difficult for us to work on tackling child marriage. There were a lot of restrictions for lobby and advocacy for us: the 2009 Ethiopian law radically constrained the work and political space of civil society organizations (CSOs). Ethiopian resident charities and societies and foreign charities were allowed to receive funds from foreign sources, but prohibited from carrying out lobby and advocacy activities.’

Now, due to the revised civil society proclamation in 2019 by the federal agency of civil society organizations, everything has changed, Abegaz explains: ‘Now CSOs are permitted to work on any human right issue. There is a conducive and enabling environment now to work on lobby and advocacy.  Foreign and foreign-funded CSOs are no longer prohibited from engaging in advocacy and human rights work. Now policymakers and government offices have the will to work with civil society organizations. Currently, we are working with the Ethiopian government to tackle child marriage and FGM. We are pushing the government at different levels to give it even higher priority and more attention.’