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Guidance for child marriage programs to promote gender transformation

by Dr. Joachim Theis

March 2021

Between November 2019 and September 2020, I worked with Child Frontiers colleagues Claudia Lo Forte and Martha Nelems to develop 14 technical notes for the UNICEF-UNFPA Global Programme to End Child Marriage (Global Programme). Phase 2 of the Global Programme marked a major programmatic shift from an instrumentalist towards a gender-transformative approach: rather than just protecting girls from getting married before reaching age 18, supporting interventions that aim to bring about far-reaching structural changes and challenge deep-rooted gender inequality.


From left : Claudia Lo Forte, Joachim Theis and Martha Nelems

Instrumentalist      Gender Transformative approaches to child marriage


  • Delay marriage until age 18

  • Delay early childbearing

  • Cash transfers for investment in girls

  • Keep girls in school

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Gender Transformative

  • Challenge compulsory marriage

  • Promote agency and bodily autonomy

  • Address underlying son preference

  • Opportunities and choices beyond school vs marriage

The purpose of the technical notes was to provide short notes on key themes for Phase 2 of the Global Programme and replace the previous, lengthy programme guidance document. The technical notes are based on the latest available evidence; explain, elaborate and clarify the Global Programme’s programming strategies; provide practical and operational guidance with a ‘how to’ lens for country implementation; and promote and advocate the Global Programme’s work and programming strategies.


In writing the technical notes, we collaborated with UNICEF and UNFPA technical specialists in New York. While some of the technical notes were summaries of existing UNICEF and UNFPA documents, others were developed from scratch.


Some technical notes required consultation with multiple sections of UNICEF and UNFPA including gender and social policy to ensure that the notes were in line with the latest thinking of gender-transformative approaches and with state-of-the-art evidence on what works to end child marriage. For example, the note on adolescent-girl responsive systems was a collaborative effort with reproductive health, education and social protection teams, highlighting the need to approach ending violence against girls, adolescent reproductive health, girls’ education and livelihood opportunities in multi-sectoral ways.


Moving out of conceptual and programmatic silos was a theme that ran across most of the technical notes, including the notes on convergent programming, going to scale, leaving no one behind, as well as on child marriage and the law. This required all involved to have an open mind and adapt the papers to the perspectives of different disciplines and sectors and to new evidence, even if it challenged preconceived notions and approaches.


One of the most challenging notes to develop was the paper on ‘child marriage and the law’. The initial title was ‘criminalization and child marriage’ and the first draft was based largely on legal analyses from human rights and gender specialists. Through three drafts and critiques by lawyers, the note moved away from legalistic perspectives, minimised the focus on criminal law and concentrated on the challenges and opportunities the law presents to policy makers and programme specialists. Accordingly, the title of the note was changed to ‘Child Marriage and the Law’, with an emphasis on using the law to support programmatic efforts to end child marriage.

Technical Briefs

This consultancy was a rich learning experience and expanded our own understanding, as child protection practitioners, of a wide range of issues relevant to ending child marriage. It also felt like an important and useful endeavour to make large amounts of technical information more readily accessible to other practitioners as pithy programmatic guidance – such as how to operationalize gender norms to the practical needs of programming staff.


Reflecting on this process, three things stand out for me:


  • The 14 technical notes present cutting-edge evidence and thinking that goes beyond most current programmes to end child marriage. They set a high bar for gender-transformative programming approaches, for achieving greater scale, for working multi-sectorally, and prioritizing the inclusion of the most marginalized and excluded adolescent girls.


  • Drawing on a wide range of perspectives and resources, the notes reflect much more than the perspectives of a single sector or organization. They bring together and reconcile diverse views and approaches and translate them into practical guidance for country level programme staff.


  • The notes encapsulate a large number of documents in a highly synthesized format and are written in accessible language targeted at programme practitioners. This should ensure that the different notes receive greater attention and wider readership than a compilation of the papers in a single compendium.

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