Insights into Editorial: Can Conditional Transfers Eradicate Child Marriage?
Insights into Editorial: Can Conditional Transfers Eradicate Child Marriage?
In recent years child marriage has gained increasing prominence on international and national development agendas. The highest rates of child marriage are typically found in low or lower middle-income countries where millions live below the poverty line. UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children 2016 report noted that “Girls from the poorest households—and those living in rural areas—face twice the risk of being married before turning 18 as girls from the richest households or those living in urban areas.”
A recent review of existing evidence suggests that cash-based interventions are effective for ending child marriage, as are multipronged programmes that do not include incentives related to marriage-timing.
About 22 years ago, Haryana launched Apni Beti Apna Dhan (“Our daughters, our wealth”), an ambitious cash-transfer (CCT) programme to change how girls were seen by their families and communities – as a burden to be married off, not an asset.
For every daughter that was born, a family that enrolled in the programme would receive approximately $400, on the condition that they remained unmarried until the age of 18. The impact, they hoped, would be three-fold: increased value of girls, improved educational attainment, and delayed marriage.
Did the programme help prevent child marriage?
In a nutshell, not really. Although the programme gave families an incentive to keep their daughters in school until the 8th grade, it was found that it had no effect on girls getting married before 18.
- Only a small proportion of girls (14%) were married when the programme was evaluated. Most telling, there was no significant difference between girls who took part in Apni Beti Apna Dhan and those who didn’t. The programme accompanied a shift that was already happening in the state of Haryana – girls staying in school longer and delaying marriage – but did not cause the change.
- On the contrary, the programme may have encouraged families to marry off their daughters once they turned 18. Girls whose families benefited from the conditional cash transfers were 59% more likely to be married once they turned 18 than girls who hadn’t participated. In fact, many families waited to cash in the money at the end of the programme as they saw it a way to cover their daughter’s marriage and dowry expenses.
Challenging social norms:
Apni Beti Apna Dhan’s failure to influence when a girl gets marriage points to a bigger problem: changing social norms and attitudes towards girls. Child marriage in Haryana is deeply rooted in gender roles and expectations around girls’ role, which the conditional cash transfers did not challenge.
- Girls who took part in the programme grew up with the understanding that they had to get married by a certain age. They understood that their aspirations remained limited by the decisions made for them by their parents and their husband.
- This tells us that financial incentives alone cannot erase centuries of discrimination towards girls. Social change is complex and requires long-term, multi-sectoral approaches. To transform social norms, programmes must go hand in hand with other interventions to change parents’ attitudes, improve education, incentivise higher level of education, and increase opportunities for girls to learn, work and earn.
Other concerns associated with conditional transfers:
By their very nature, conditional transfer programmes (with transfers in cash or kind) have to be tied to specific, observable and verifiable outcomes. In the case of educational programmes, these outcomes typically include school attendance, or performance in school, above a minimum threshold. The logic of these programmes is that they reduce parents’ opportunity cost of sending their children to school. As long as the programme succeeds in making children turn up at school, the potential benefits are closely linked to school quality: teacher quality and time, classroom size, availability of textbooks, etc.
In the case of conditional transfers tied to marriage postponement, their effectiveness depends much more on decisions made within the household, specifically, on how parents of adolescent girls respond to these incentives. The transfers depend on one verifiable outcome—at what age do their daughters marry?—while parents (or the household as a whole) are free to adjust the other parameters associated with that decision as they see fit. There is no guarantee that a household meeting the conditions set by the programme would result in improved agency of adolescent girls in their own marriage decisions—whether, when, and whom to marry—or increased investment in their education or earning skills, or a shift in beliefs and attitudes within the wider community, which could have a lasting impact on these outcomes.
What else can be done to prevent child marriage?
- Increasing access to accessible, high quality and safe schooling is a critical strategy in ending child marriage and ensuring married girls have the opportunity to complete their education. Education builds knowledge, opens new opportunities and can help to shift norms around the value of girls in the community. The very act of girls attending school can reinforce to the community that girls of school-going age are still children.
- Supporting young people to be agents of change can be an effective and empowering process in and of itself. Many organisations work with young people so they can advocate for change as well as helping to inform the design of programmes that directly benefit their peers.
- Many families and communities see child marriage as a deeply rooted practice which has been part of their culture for generations. For change to happen, the values and norms which support the practice of child marriage need to shift. Working with families and the wider community to raise awareness of the harmful consequences of child marriage can change attitudes and reduce the acceptance among those who make the decision to marry girls as children.
- Community level change underpins all of efforts in preventing child marriage and mitigating the harmful effects for married girls. Without change at this level, the day-to-day reality for girls all over the world will remain the same.
- A strong legal and policy system can provide an important backdrop for improvements in services, changes in social norms and girls’ empowerment.
There is a broad consensus among practitioners that child marriage is an outcome of broad social norms and societal pressures. Financial poverty certainly adds to the pressures, leaving parents with the choice of trading-off the long- term welfare of their daughters for short-term relief from the burden of poverty. However, it is unclear whether removing economic pressures, per se, is sufficient to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) of ending child marriage, along with early and forced marriage, by 2030. This is evidenced by the paradoxical experience of countries like India and Bangladesh where the prevalence of child marriage remains high despite decades of rapid macroeconomic growth and substantial decline in poverty.
Given this uncertainty, policymakers should support a multidimensional, longer term and holistic view of the impact, which takes into account dimensions such as realised rights, health and access to education, rather than cost–benefit based approaches that rely on single-focus indicators that may or may not have a lasting impact on individual well-being. The former will have added pay-offs in terms of improving the well-being of women within marriage, including freedom from marital violence, irrespective of how the interventions affect the age at first marriage.
Today, we have a unique opportunity to act on this momentum and accelerate our efforts to help change the lives of girls and young women all over the world. 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. Under their own constitutions, and as per international human rights law, all countries have committed to securing girls’ rights to personal liberty, freedom of expression and freedom of movement. It is essential that the development agenda strengthen, rather than undermine this commitment.