I spent part of this morning (very early this morning) speaking to a joint meeting of experts on child marriage from UNFPA and UNICEF from the South Asia region. Earlier this year, I coauthored a directed literature review of white papers and scholarly literature from 2014 to 2018 on child marriage in South Asia and was asked to share some thoughts and findings.
The paper is forthcoming, and I’ll be sure to post it when it’s available, but presenting the findings very briefly this morning to my colleagues forced me to think about big picture lessons. In doing so, my thoughts coalesced on one important point. Namely, as the research around child marriage has evolved, so too has the thinking about how to address the problem, changing from a single-minded, narrowly focused assignment of poverty as the root cause and thus poverty alleviation as the solution, to nuanced understanding of the heterogeneity of the experiences of child brides and the deep cultural, social, political, legal, and normative institutions that shape both the practice and responses to programming designed to stem it.
Viewing child marriage as a systems problem, one that is subject to feedback loops and responsive in ways we may not fully expect or plan for (externalities or unintended consequences) is an increasingly recognized and necessary way to view programming. In addition, the increasing recognition of the subnational heterogeneity and increasing availability of quality data and studies on particular groups and their child marriage institutions is an important step in better placing the problem in its social and political contexts. I’m excited to see continued work in this area that recognizes, for instance, how cash transfers may increase secondary school attainment and delay the very youngest child marriage, but also increase marriage at age 18, or how outlawing child marriage may influence sex selection, or how to make girls’ empowerment and agency interventions effective and safe for girls in an environment with strong, persistent patriarchal norms, or how norms that appear to be changing and flexible may be more pliant in the face of macro-economic changes and individual-level shocks. Developing methods and evaluation tools to test the efficacy of integrated programming is a frontline problem for child marriage programming, as well as other social programming.
All said, there are so many exciting areas of research, and I love being deeply ensconced in these debates with scholars and practitioners. Paper to come shortly!