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Child marriage is a global scourge. Here's how Ethiopia is fighting it.

Banning the practice nationwide nearly two decades ago was only half the battle, advocates and experts say.
Illustration of young girl standing between two arguing adults.
Mikyung Lee / for NBC News

Earlier this year, when news of a 15-year-old Ethiopian girl's impending forced marriage went viral on social media, police swung into action: Her parents were arrested, and so was her husband-to-be, an older man she had never met. The wedding was canceled.

For advocates, the story highlighted the painstaking progress Ethiopia has made in its efforts to confront the issue of child marriage — a widespread problem in the African nation, according to an evaluation of UNICEF data compiled by Girls Not Brides, an international nonprofit working to end child marriage.

The country, which according to the group has the 15th highest rate of child marriages in the world and the fifth-highest total number of child brides at over 2 million, outlawed the practice nearly 20 years ago.

With the assistance of various international organizations, Ethiopia also implemented a series of community-based programs that have worked to change cultural attitudes toward women and girls. Recently, the country announced an ambitious goal — eliminate child marriage by 2025 — and also signed the United Nations' global development goals to end child marriage by 2030.

These programs, advocates told NBC News, have been crucial to the strides Ethiopia has made, and the country's multi-pronged approach could be a model for other nations struggling to combat the problem.

Marriage before age 18 is considered a human rights abuse by many countries, including the United States, and by the U.N. However, child marriage still persists all over the world due to a number of factors, including how developed a nation is and how women and girls are treated, as well as the poverty rate and if social mobility is restricted. In America, where efforts to enact a federal ban have stalled, nearly a quarter of a million children were married in the U.S. from 2000 to 2010, according to the advocacy group Unchained At Last.

After Ethiopian officials banned the practice in 2000, the median age for the first marriage among Ethiopian women was roughly 16 years old. And in 2016 — the most recent data available — that number has ticked up to about 17 years old, according to a Demographic and Health Survey conducted by the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID. The survey also found that 40 percent of girls will be married before they are 18, which is a decline from about 50 percent a decade ago.

Annabel Erulkar, an Ethiopia-based program director with the international nonprofit Population Council, attributed the notable drop in child marriages throughout the country largely to these intervention programs.

She pointed specifically to one called Berhane Hewan, a partnership between the Population Council and the Ethiopian Ministry of Women, Children and Youth Affairs. The name of the program translates to "Light for Eve" in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia. It was first implemented after the country raised the marriage age to 18 and targeted child marriage “hot spots.”

Erulkar, who has spent more than 25 years in sub-Saharan Africa, said the program identified regions of the country where child marriage is prevalent, notably the rural areas, not only because it’s common to view girls solely as caretakers and wives, but also where there is a lack of alternatives such as education, employment and female role models, among other factors. This, in part, contributes to the prevalence of child brides.

“It was community conversations to address social norms. We provide school materials to encourage girls to stay in school and thereby be protected from an early marriage,” she said. “We all offered a conditional asset transfer in the form of a goat to girls and their families who remained unmarried and in school and then we also had girls' groups.”

The results of that program, piloted in just a handful of regions at first, found that girls ages 10 to 14 were 90 percent less likely to be married and three times more likely to remain in school.

“It really did demonstrate to the field that child marriage is not an intractable practice. That there are low cost, modest interventions that one can do to have a measurable impact on the practice in rural areas,” she said. “But when we finished that and we said, ‘Oh great, this worked. It's time to scale this up.’"

However, that’s when she said the program ran into problems. She and the other workers had not collected detailed information on the exact cost of the program, leading to concerns from government officials that it might be too costly to run and too difficult to implement broadly.

Another challenge, Erulkar noted, was that child marriage "flourishes and persists in the hardest to reach places, which adds a layer of complexity to implementing child marriage prevention projects."

Rachel Yates, the interim executive director of Girls Not Brides, told NBC News that the work of the Berhane Hewan program is a part of a larger effort from advocates on the ground.

Rachel Yates, interim CEO of Girls Not Brides.
Rachel Yates, interim CEO of Girls Not Brides.Elise Wrabetz / NBC News

"A lot of our members have been very active in promoting better laws and policies. But we're also working with them and encouraging them to go beyond that to actually say, 'Well, what can you do at the community level to work with, say, religious leaders, traditional leaders, to change their attitudes on child marriage?'" she said. “You can have the best laws in place, but they may not actually be used to the benefit of girls.”

At present, more than 650 million women and girls around the world have been or are currently married before 18 years old, according to UNICEF. Problem areas persist around the globe due to rigid cultural norms, but there has been a decline.

Roughly 25 million child marriages have been thwarted over the past decade, according to data analyzed by UNICEF. Advocates attribute that to laws and also the interventions championed by various nonprofits, nongovernmental organizations, as well as the local and national governments.

In recent years, a number of countries around the world have acted to stop the practice or curb it.

Last year, Norway banned the practice. In an unprecedented move in Indonesia in 2017, female Islamic clerics issued a fatwa, or decree, against child marriage and pressed the government to raise the marriage age to 18, calling it “harmful.”

India, meanwhile, has seen measurable success thanks to implementing changes similar to those in Ethiopia, such as setting a national minimum age for marriage at 18, undertaking public messaging campaigns and investing in the education of girls. The percent of girls 20 to 24 married before they were 18 in that country dropped to 25 percent from 47 percent over the last decade, UNICEF reported in 2018.

A fourteen-year-old child bride performs rituals with the groom after getting married at a Hindu temple near Rajgarh, in India's Madhya Pradesh state in 2017.
A fourteen-year-old child bride performs rituals with the groom after getting married at a Hindu temple near Rajgarh, in India's Madhya Pradesh state in 2017.Prakash Hatvalne / AP file

However, there would need to be a 23 percent reduction in child marriages by 2030 to eliminate the practice altogether, according to UNICEF. For instance, there has only been a 1.9 percent decrease over the past 10 years and the decrease becomes less than a percent — 0.7 — when observed over the past 25 years.

As a result, UNICEF also said in a recent report that it does not believe that any region of the world will be on track to end child marriage by 2030.

Despite this bleak picture, Ryan Sasse, the assistant director of advocacy and engagement with UNICEF USA, said he saw a silver lining in those global benchmarks set by the U.N.

“It means for the first time, the entire global community is all working towards the same goal and it pairs child marriage within larger gender equality efforts,” he said.