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New Population Council evidence shows what works to delay child marriage in Bangladesh

New research presented by the Population Council shows that programs that educate girls, teach them about their rights and build skills for modern livelihoods can reduce the likelihood of child marriage by up to one-third in Bangladesh. This is the first rigorously evaluated study to provide evidence on approaches to delay child marriage in a region where two out of three girls is married before the legal age of 18.

When girls are married early, they are more likely to drop out of school, be unemployed and experience violence and harassment. Even as adults, women who marry early are often at a disadvantage – they are more socially isolated, poorer and less educated. A delayed marriage greatly improves a girl’s chances for a healthy and productive life. And the benefits of a later marriage go beyond the girl: her children, family, community and country experience better health, economic and social outcomes.

Population Council findings released today are from the “Bangladeshi Association for Life Skills, Income, and Knowledge for Adolescents” (BALIKA) project, a randomized controlled trial to evaluate whether three skills-building approaches to empower girls can effectively delay the age at marriage among girls aged 12-18 in parts of Bangladesh where child marriage rates are at their highest. The project is funded by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

The trial found that three approaches: 1.) providing education support, 2.) gender rights awareness, or 3.) livelihoods skills, were successful in reducing child marriage and producing better health, educational, economic and social outcomes for girls.

More than 9,000 girls in 72 communities participated in the BALIKA project. Communities were assigned to one of three arms in which girls received either 1.) education support through tutoring in math and English; 2.) lifeskills training on gender rights and negotiation, critical thinking, and decision making; or 3.) livelihoods training in entrepreneurship, mobile phone servicing, photography and basic first aid. Another 24 communities served as the control arm of this study: no services were provided in those communities.

All girls participating in the BALIKA project met weekly with mentors and peers in safe, girl-only locations, called BALIKA centers, which helped girls develop friendships, receive training on new technologies, borrow books and acquire the skills they need to navigate the transition from girlhood to adulthood. Girls would use these skills within their communities, helping to build their confidence, demonstrate their achievements, and elevate their profiles.

“In Bangladesh, limited evidence exists on what works to delay child marriage,” said Ann Blanc, vice president of the Population Council and director of the Poverty, Gender, and Youth Program. “These results are a major leap forward. For the first time, we have high-quality, very rigorous evidence demonstrating the significant impact of programs on delaying age at marriage. I am confident that they will build an important foundation to inform policies and shape the way programs are designed and implemented in the years to come.”