New multi-country initiative will protect millions of girls from child marriage – UNICEF/UNFPA

Zewde Fentaw dances during her wedding ceremony in Shumshah kebele, Lasta Woreda
Zewde Fentaw dances during her wedding ceremony in Shumshah kebele, Lasta Woreda ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2015/Bindra

NEW YORK/ADDIS ABABA, 8 March 2016 – A new multi-country initiative to accelerate action to end child marriage will help protect the rights of millions of the world’s most vulnerable girls, UNICEF and UNFPA said on International Women’s Day.

The UNFPA-UNICEF Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage announced today will involve families, communities, governments and young people. This is part of a global effort to prevent girls from marrying too young and to support those already married as girls in 12 countries across Africa, Asia and the Middle East where child marriage rates are high.

“Choosing when and whom to marry is one of life’s most important decisions. Child marriage denies millions of girls this choice each year,” said Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund. “As part of this global programme, we will work with governments of countries with a high prevalence of child marriage to uphold the rights of adolescent girls, so that girls can reach their potential and countries can attain their social and economic development goals.”

The new global programme will focus on five proven strategies, including increasing girls’ access to education, educating parents and communities on the dangers of child marriage, increasing economic support to families, and strengthening and enforcing laws that establish 18 as the minimum age of marriage.

“The world has awakened to the damage child marriage causes to individual girls, to their future children, and to their societies,” said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake.  “This new global programme will help drive action to reach the girls at greatest risk – and help more girls and young women realize their right to dictate their own destinies. This is critical now because if current trends continue, the number of girls and women married as children will reach nearly 1 billion by 2030 – 1 billion childhoods lost, 1 billion futures blighted.” 

Child marriage is a violation of the rights of girls and women. Girls who are married as children are more likely to be out of school, suffer domestic violence, contract HIV/AIDS and die due to complications during pregnancy and childbirth. Child marriage also hurts economies and leads to intergenerational cycles of poverty.

The global community demonstrated strong commitment to end child marriage by including a target on eliminating it and other harmful practices in the Sustainable Development Goals. UNICEF and UNFPA call on governments and partner organizations to support the new Global Programme to help eliminate child marriage by 2030. 

The UNFPA-UNICEF Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage is being supported by Canada, the European Union, Italy, Netherlands, and the UK.

Note to editors

In Ethiopia, two in every five girls is married before the age of 18 and this practice is prevalent across all the regions. According to the Ethiopian Demographic Health Survey (EDHS) 2011, 41 per cent of girls between the ages of 20 to 24 are married by age 18, compared to 7.3 per cent of boys. Similar source also indicates that 63 per cent of girls between the ages of 25-49 are married as compared to 13.55 of men. The median age at first marriage is 16.5 for women age 25–49 compared with men who marry later, at a median age of 23.2.

In terms of regional variation, the highest prevalence rate is in Amhara (44.8 per cent), followed by Tigray (34.1 per cent), Benishangul-Gumuz (31.9 per cent) and Addis Ababa at 32.3 per cent. From the 1997 baseline survey up to the follow up survey of 2008 of EGLDAM, the highest decline is observed in SNNP regional state where the prevalence rate declined from 18.7 per cent to 9.9 per cent and in Benishangul-Gumuz where it declined from 50.1 per cent to 31.9 per cent. Nationwide, the legal age of marriage is 18. However two regional states namely Afar and Somali have not yet promulgated their regional family laws in alignment with that of the federal level. Thus, by implication, the legal age of marriage in these two regions is still below 18 and customary law condoning child marriage prevails. 

The Government of Ethiopia has taken strategic and programmatic measures to eliminate child marriage. Some of the key actions include; endorsement of the National Strategy and Action Plan on Harmful Traditional Practices against Women and Children and communication strategy for social norm change and establishment of the National Alliance to End Child Marriage and FGM/C to coordinate and synergize national level efforts. Moreover, the Government has shown a ground-breaking commitment to end child marriage by 2025 at the London Girls’ Summit and reinforced by setting a target to reduce the practice to 0.5 per cent in the Growth and Transformation Plan II (GTP II).  

UNICEF is supporting the Government of Ethiopia in developing a roadmap which defines the long term strategic and programme interventions and the role of different actors, strengthening the National Alliance through supporting the establishment of functional secretariat, enriching the Ethiopian Demographic and Health Survey (EDHS) module to include better data and consensus building sessions with religious leaders in collaboration with UNFPA and other Alliance members.

 In addition, UNICEF is supporting the government of Ethiopia in implementing ending child marriage programmes in Amhara, Afar and Somali regions. Similarly, UNICEF and UNFPA have developed a joint programme to end child marriage based on the lessons learned from the successful implementation of the joint programme on the elimination of FGM/C. The key results of the joint programme include; enhancing girls’ capacity to better exercise their choice, changing the attitudes of families and communities to value investment in girls and enabling service providers to respond to the needs of adolescent girls. In addition, it focuses on ensuring alignment of existing legal and policy frameworks with international standards and allocation of adequate resource to strengthen the data management system.