One of the six strategies Her Choice applies in the field addresses Strategy VI: creating an enabling legal and policy environment on preventing child marriage. We do this by supporting community leaders to develop local bylaws and (local) authorities to enforce national policies on preventing child marriage, and by advocating with national authorities for 18 years as the legal minimum marriage age in those countries with lower minimum ages.
The long-term goal of the Her Choice programme is to support the creation of child marriage-free communities in which girls and young women are free to decide if, when and whom to marry. The six intervention strategies are based on evidence, which shows that the most consistent results of targeting child marriages are achieved by fostering information, skills and networks for girls in combination with community mobilisation.
Activities under Strategy VI include providing information and training for members of the local council and other stakeholders on national and international legislation concerning child marriage, female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and child protection, and to facilitate discussions on improvement of reporting systems (including birth registration) and bylaws. Such discussions are facilitated at local and at district level. Activities also include awareness raising for girls and community stakeholders on protective laws and bylaws and on (local) protective frameworks. In Pakistan local partner Bedari organises dialogue sessions with local parliamentarians on the child marriage law; i.e. raising the minimum age to 18 years.
Child marriage and the law
The Her Choice programme departs from the principle that young women should be protected against child marriage by national and local (by)laws. In all Her Choice countries there are national laws in place that stipulate the minimum age for marriage for young women and men. In line with international standards, in five programme countries the legal minimum age for marriage for young women is 18 years (Bangladesh, Benin, Ghana, Uganda, Ethiopia). However, in Bangladesh, Benin, Ghana, and Uganda, marriage for girls below 18 years old is possible with parental consent. In Nepal, the legal age for marriage is 20 years.
It is critical to note that in four programme countries the legal age for girls to marry is lower than 18 years: in Pakistan, Mali and Senegal, the legal age for girls to marry without parental consent is 16 years, while in Burkina Faso it is 17 years. In Mali, girls can marry below 16 years under Sharia law. The legal minimum age to marry for boys is higher than that for girls in some countries: Bangladesh and Burkina Faso 21 years, Mali, Senegal and Pakistan, 18 years (www.girlsnotbrides.org).
The existence of a law does not mean it is enforced. Considering difficulties in national enforcement of legislation, the Her Choice programme seeks to support communities to develop bylaws against child marriage at community level, and district departments to better enforce existing laws. Within the Her Choice programme and this report, ‘district’ is defined as the lowest level of government administration.
Child marriage-related bylaws and enforcement of national laws, by country
In Bangladesh, the Upazila and District level government offices responsible for incidents of child marriage and are prepared to take legal action in case of trespassing. The Hunger Project supported the Union Parishad (UP) to form child marriage prevention committees and managed that by December 2018, 55 committees were formed in all Her Choice Unions. These committees build mass awareness against child marriage, implement action plans to prevent child marriage, and provide recommendations to the Upazila child marriage prevention committees. The UP is strictly following the law on birth registration. Partners’ reports indicate that increasingly girls feel supported by official institutions when they face violation of their rights. Adolescent boys and girls are reporting pre and post child marriage incidents to the police station and Upazila administration. In response, police and Upazila level government officials are providing full support to the affected girls in case of (intended) child marriage or other violations of their rights.
In Benin the minimum age of marriage under the Code des Personnes et de la Famille 2002 is 18. However, difficulties remain in enforcing these laws because of socio-political and cultural realities. The existing Centre de Promotion Sociale is meant to raise awareness on birth registration and to identify cases of child abuse and forced marriage but is not very effective. Her Choice contributes to the law enforcement by setting up monitoring bodies in the communities.
In Burkina Faso, at the national level, a process triggered by the Multisector Platform for the Prevention and Elimination of Child Marriage (la coalition nationale contre le mariage d’enfants) has led to a significant impetus to end child marriage. The Her Choice programme supported the development of bylaws on child marriage, FGM/C and children’s rights. A reliable system of reporting child marriage cases has been put in place. The age of married girls is being monitored through marriage records in mosques.
In Ethiopia, functional community bylaws have been developed and materialized among social institutions called Iddirs, and local communities. Some have already revised existing bylaws, and some are in the process of revising the laws, in order to address child marriage. The bylaws included different articles that address child marriage, FGM and sexual assault, as well as regulate school attendance. Also, a system has been put in place to act upon the breaking of these bylaws. However, in some cases the outreach of bylaws should be scaled up. At the macro level, partners in Ethiopia advocate with decision makers for the creation of an enabling environment for girls. As a result of their involvement in the programme, girls in implementation areas in Ethiopia better understand protective laws regarding child marriage and FGM/C and the number of girls who ask support from legal institutions has increased. Community members are also active in providing protection to those girls who may become subject to child marriage by bargaining with the parents effectively to stop the marriage. This makes girls feel protected when they face violation of their rights.
In Ghana all communities except for those that are comparison sites for the impact evaluation, have developed bylaws to prohibit child marriage, and progress has been made on their enforcement. Programme staff continues to advocate for the introduction of an operational reporting system to document birth registration, child marriage, sexual assault and related issues. All club members and schools in implementation areas were regularly reached with education on child rights and laws on child marriage, FGM/C, sexual assault and other abuse against children. They also received information on official institutions responsible for the protection of their rights and how cases of abuse can be reported.
In Mali, in some villages, religious leaders refuse to perform and celebrate child marriage without the explicit consent of the girls and insist on knowing the age of the girls before performing a ceremony. In the municipality of Touna, Mali, it was decided that a marriage will be held only when there is consent between the boy and girl, with the supports of the parents. This is the case in all villages of the municipality. Three villages in implementation areas have abandoned child marriage and FGM/C altogether. Birth registration is officially starting in some implementation zones.
In Nepal, governments at federal, provincial and local level are engaged in developing programmes to address the issues of girls and women, along with the need of their protection, development, and participation. In addition, local governments are planning to declare the Her Choice working areas as child friendly municipalities, whereby child marriage is one out of 39 issues that should be addressed. In these child friendly municipalities, a significant number of women are representing the local government, who are concerned with issues of girls and women.
In Pakistan, members of the Civil Procedure Code (CPC) in the implementation area have signed a resolution to end child marriage and are making efforts to achieve this objective. These efforts include: assisting villagers in birth registration, marriage registration, enrolment in schools and registration for getting a national identity card. In case of incidence of child marriage, CPC members engage with the relevant government department. In many of such cases, girls and women also approached Bedari. Actions by CPC also include:
- The girls of Lahore presented their issues around access to school to the Punjab Transportation Minister who ensured to address this as a priority.
- During a policy dialogue on child marriage, Chairman Council of Islamic Ideology and member of National Assembly committed to support the action to end child marriage.
- At the Provincial Conference and Parliamentary Dialogue organised by Bedari in November 2018, legislators formed an advisory working group of parliamentarians to combat child marriage and to improve girls’ education in Punjab.
In Senegal, some villages have already adopted local charters on the prevention of child marriage and others continue the process of developing regulations and conventions. At the national level, the newly created Ministry on Good Governance and Child Protection, is also a significant milestone that enhances the impact of the Her Choice programme.
In Uganda, all districts where Her Choice is being implemented have established mechanisms like the District and Sub County OVC (Orphans and Vulnerable Children) committees. These bring together all relevant actors, such as the director of public prosecution, judiciary, Uganda police force, local government officials and non-state actors to discuss and enforce laws against child marriage. The Hunger Project Uganda also developed a leaflet on the existing laws and policies on ending child marriage that has been widely disseminated to all project sites.
Midline study findings
Findings of the midline study in 2018 – conducted in a selection of the communities where the Her Choice programme is being implemented – showed progress compared to the baseline (in 2016) on most indicators of Strategy VI.
Bylaws on child marriage
Increases in proportion of communities with child marriage-related bylaws were found in Bangladesh, Nepal, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Ghana, and Uganda. In Burkina Faso, this proportion rose steeply. Nevertheless, at midline, most research communities did not have child marriage-related bylaws yet. There is progress though, because compared to the baseline, an increase is noted in the share of communities that were in the process of developing child marriage-related bylaws – in Mali this increase is considerable.
One intended intermediate outcome of Strategy VI activities at district level is birth registration of all children. When births are not registered and young people do not have a birth certificate, it is more difficult to ascertain whether a young person is, for example, legally at age for marriage. District informants were asked to estimate the share of births registered: whether this was almost all births, more than half of births, about half, less than half or hardly any.
Regarding the estimated share of reported registered births, progress has been made in most countries. For example, Benin, less than half of births were registered at baseline while at midline more than half were said to be registered. Similarly, in Ethiopia, in 5 out of the 11 districts, at baseline officials reported that hardly any birth was registered, whereas at midline, none of the districts were in this category. However, at midline, birth registration of (almost) all children remains problematic in all countries. Only in Burkina Faso and Mali at midline it has increased, with 3 out of 7 districts in Burkina Faso and 4 out of 9 districts in Mali reporting that almost all births are registered.
Household heads were asked whether they had registered births of all their children, of some of their children, or none. Findings somewhat contradicted reports by District officials. Surprisingly, a large share of households in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Mali, and Burkina Faso reported they had officially registered the birth of all their children. The highest shares of households not registering children were found in Ethiopia (approximately 85%) and Uganda (approximately 65%).
The main channel through which district authorities promote birth registration is through sensitizing the communities – be it with radio communication or community sessions on the importance of having a birth certificate. In Mali, emphasis is also placed on creating better linkages between health facilities and district offices for birth registration. In Burkina Faso, birth registration has been promoted with birth registration campaigns at the community level, but also making birth registration free of charge in the town hall. In Ethiopia, district officials mentioned that they organize community events to promote birth registration, and work closely with religious institutions. District officials in Uganda reported mobile health centers where births can be registered. In Pakistan and Nepal, the public awareness campaigns emphasize that birth certificates are mandatory for school enrollment.
District officials expanded on the problems they face related to birth registration, which can be roughly divided in obstacles at community/family and at administrative level. At community and family level, district officials in Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Benin, Ethiopia, Senegal, and Nepal mentioned illiteracy and ‘ignorance’ of parents as a reason for not registering births. District officials in Bangladesh and Burkina Faso reported that the costs of birth registration formed a barrier for some families. In Nepal, district officials mention that birth registration of children of divorced parents or when parents do not have a marriage certificate is difficult. Another main obstacle mentioned relates to the place of delivery, that is, in Burkina Faso, Benin and Uganda, many women reportedly give birth at home or outside a health facility, and many parents do not immediately register a birth in these cases. In some cases, people only seek to register a birth when a birth certificate is required, for example, to enroll in school (e.g. in South Asia).
At the administrative level, several obstacles were reported. In Ghana and Ethiopia, district officials stressed logistical problems, such as the lack of infrastructure required for delivering birth registration forms to rural areas, and occasional break-down of the registering system. In Mali and Ethiopia, district officials reported there was no public servant dedicated to registration, and in Burkina Faso, there was insufficient staff to fill in the birth registers. In Uganda, district officials indicated that the administration has limited resources to print the birth registration forms. Finally, in Ethiopia and Mali, district officials reported that the local community agents appointed to facilitate birth registration were not always motivated or present, further lowering registration levels.
Establishing district-level reporting systems
Another intended intermediate outcome of district level Her Choice activities relates to the establishment of a district-level system that allows for community members’ reporting of suspected cases of child marriage, FGM/C or sexual assault.
At midline, not much change was found with respect to district representatives’ responses as to whether people report violations of laws concerning child marriage and/or sexual assault – such reporting deemed an indication that the system is operational. As in baseline, in Bangladesh, Nepal and Ghana all districts said they have such reporting systems, and in Burkina Faso still 3 out of 7 districts. In midline the district in Uganda now has one.
Girls’ and young women’s awareness of the existence of laws
When (by)laws are in place and are enforced, and communities sensitized, it is expected that young women are (better) aware of the existence of laws against child marriage. Considerable changes were noted on this indicator: in the majority of communities the shares of interviewed girls who knew of protective child marriage-related laws had increased notably, with particularly big changes found in Pakistan, Nepal, Senegal, Mali, Ghana and Ethiopia.
Figure 1: Share of single girls who know of protective laws against child marriage (%)