This Is How The Wedding Industry Aims To End Child Marriage

The VOW initiative encourages couples saying, 'I do’ to help millions of underage girls say, “I don’t.”

This year, 12 million girls under the age of 18, and some as young as 8 or 9, will be forced into child marriage. By 2030, that number could be significantly lowered. It won't be easy, but human rights activist Mabel van Oranje believes that the millions of couples spending tens of billions each year saying, "I do" can also help millions of underage girls say, "I don't." 


Having advocated against child marriage since 2010, the idea first came to the princess of the Netherlands two years ago at the wedding of two friends. They'd asked their guests to either buy presents from their wedding registry or to donate money to Girls Not Brides, an umbrella organization of non-governmental organizations worldwide working to end child marriage van Oranje helped to create in 2011. 

Though she loved her friends' desire to give back, she knew that Girls Not Brides already had access to "Western sources of funding," including government, prize, and foundation funds. "This was really the lightbulb moment," van Oranje told A Plus. "I thought, 'Imagine that when people go to a wedding, they can actually help to make sure that every girl — anywhere in the world — gets the rights and the ability to decide if she wants to get married, when she wants to get married, and with whom she wants to get married." 

She wondered what could be possible if she was able to connect the local anti-child marriage organizations that "need the money most badly, but who have the hardest time accessing that money" with the $100 billion spent each year on weddings in the United States. "I figured if we can get a percentage of a percentage of that, then we can make an enormously meaningful difference in Africa, in Asia, in Latin America, in those places where child marriage is highly prevalent," she said. 

To bring long overdue visibility to this widespread issue, van Oranje teamed up with wedding industry leaders — The Knot, Crate and Barrel, and Malia Mills — to launch VOW on October 8. The independent organization gives marrying couples, guests, and companies, the ability to donate a portion of their wedding registries, profits from specific VOW-brand products, or any spare cash they have to Girls First Fund, which financially supports local, on-the-ground organizations that stand up for girls' rights and against child marriage. 

"As an industry, we have the chance to make a real global impact, beyond the individual impact we make on couples. Every year, 1.8 million couples get married in the U.S. and the wedding industry helps them celebrate this joyful milestone," Dhanusha Sivajee, chief marketing officer of The Knot/XO Group Inc. said in a statement. To-be-weds can already get involved by using The Knot's "The Knot Gifts Back" program and selecting VOW as their charity of choice. For every eligible retail gift purchased from the couple's registry hosted on The Knot, the website will donate a portion of the profits to VOW in the couple's name.

Crate and Barrel has already pledged $100,000 to VOW's mission and plans to debut a similar wedding registry initiative allowing couples and guests to choose wedding gifts that directly support VOW.  Malia Mills will donate 100 percent of the net proceeds of a "one-of-a-kind-behind-bottom" to VOW when a customer creates their very own VOW bikini, now through December 31, 2018.

Those who aren't getting married or attending a wedding anytime soon can also donate directly to VOW via their website or by texting VOW to 44321.* According to van Oranje, 100 percent of the donations will go directly to on-the-ground projects. "So even what might seem like small donations," she explained. "They go a very long way in countries that are less wealthy than the United States." 

That's not to say child marriage doesn't happen in the United States. It does. Child marriage is found in nearly every country, culture, religion, and ethnicity. "Sometimes, it's poverty that drives it. Sometimes it's tradition. Sometimes it's the fear … that she will get pregnant before being married and thereby dishonor the family," van Oranje explained. "But in the end, it always has to do with the inequality between girls and boys. The view that girls are a burden; the view that girls are not as worthy as boys; the view that you need to basically get rid of your girls as quickly as you can." 

To create real, lasting change, van Oranje and her colleagues realized they had to go beyond anti-child marriage laws and progressive human rights policies. "Ultimately, change can only happen at a local level," she said. "... You need to empower people who are trusted by the community, who understand why child marriage happens, who understand who holds the power to change it." That often means tackling the issue by combining multiple approaches. Local organizations are able to both give girls access to education (including sexual and reproductive health education) and work with the community decision makers, like parents, local traditional leaders, and local religious leaders.

Though the cause of child marriage varies from one community to another, the results are often the same. Over her years of research and experience interacting with young, married girls, van Oranje has seen first-hand how much child marriage "completely deprives [a girl] of her chances to a healthy, happy, educated, prosperous future." 

All over the world, girls are pulled out of school and pushed into a marriage with a man they barely know and who views their fertility as their main value. "So these girls start having babies when they themselves are still children," van Oranje explained. "And that has obviously huge implications … It increases the risks of dying at childbirth [and] their children are less likely to live. So this is an issue that's not just terrible in terms of the numbers, but also the implications for the girls and their families and their communities are enormous." 

 Most importantly, according to van Oranje, child marriage perpetuates poverty. The reason is fairly simple: when girls are married at a young age, they don't receive a proper education. Without an education, they don't earn decent salaries and therefore can't financially contribute to the well-being of their communities. "We need to give them the resources, including financial resources to make that change happen," van Oranje said. 

Girls First Fund uses those financial resources to make change happen through changing cultural norms on the ground level. For example, Van Oranje has witnessed the impact local programs make when they educate girls' about their rights, their value, and what they can accomplish if they stay in school. "Through these kinds of programs, the girls become friends, and when they find out that one of them might get married off, then the other girls go and try to… mobilize the teacher to go talk to the father," she explained. "... I've seen stories where these girls clubs basically help to then convince the parents to delay the age of marriage in Ethiopia." 

In Senegal, local initiatives facilitate weekly sit-downs between people trusted by the community and all the men in the village to discuss the root causes of poverty in their area and what practices make them stay impoverished. "And they realized that what they thought was the right thing to do — to marry their girls at a young age — was actually leading to these [negative] consequences… I've seen village after village after village collectively decide let's not do this any longer." 

These decisions matter. Though they may not be felt on the global scale, they are felt by the girls who want a better life not just for themselves, but for their younger sisters — and eventually, perhaps, their daughters. "When I talk to married girls, I ask them, 'What do you want for your daughters?' And what they tell me is: 'I want my daughters to stay in school until they finish school, and I want them to be able to decide when they want to get married, with whom they want to get married,'" van Oranje said. "I think mothers all over the world want this for their daughters."  

Many adult women take this desire for granted simply because they are lucky enough to do so. But van Oranje aims to create a world where "the lottery of life… doesn't affect your ability to choose if you want to get married, when you want to get married, and with whom you want to get married." 

Though van Oranje is the first to admit there's "no silver bullet to end child marriage," she's hopeful that, when and where it's needed most, love can conquer all. Ultimately, she says, "What we're making possible is for people who are having the happiest day of their lives to contribute concretely to making sure that other people can also have a better life." 

A Plus reached out toSenator Lizbeth Benacquisto (R-FL), sponsor of SB 140, a bill proposing "that a marriage license may not be issued to a person under the age of 18 years except under certain circumstances."

Cover image via PaKo Studio on Shutterstock


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