A Small Funder Making Big Moves to End Child Marriage

Child marriage continues to be a pervasive global health and development challenge. The Firelight Foundation is a small funder making some big strides to end the practice.

Ending child marriage is part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) framework, which the U.N.'s 193 member states have pledged to uphold. And the 600-member coalition Girls Not Brides has been on a mission to end child marriage since 2011.

As we've reported before, a number of big funders have supported this push. In 2012, the Ford Foundation made a five-year, $25 million commitment to end child marriage and “move from awareness to action with concrete changes in policies and practices.” Incidentally, Ford helped launch Girls Not Brides.

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The Kendeda Fund is also an important presence in this space. Over the past few years, Kendeda—established in 1993 by Diana Blank, the former wife of Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank—has committed over $31 million to end child marriage around the world, focusing largely on South Asia, a region of the world where the practice is highly prevalent.

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But it’s not only the high-dollar commitments that are moving the needle here. The Firelight Foundation is a smaller funder making some serious moves in the global fight against child marriage.

Based in Santa Cruz, California, the Firelight Foundation wants to “create lasting change for children and families affected by poverty, HIV, and AIDS” in Africa. To advance its mission, the foundation backs community organizations focusing on health, building resilience, and education of children. Although ending child marriage isn’t specific to Firelight’s mission, Africa is its geographic priority, where 18 of the 20 countries with the highest rates of child marriage are located. And when you’re talking about countries with the highest absolute numbers of child marriage, Tanzania is in the top 10.

In 2015, Firelight partnered with the Agape AIDS Control Program to implement projects to stop child marriages and early pregnancies across five wards in the Shinyanga, a region of Tanzania where nearly 60 percent of girls are married before their 18th birthdays. The projects raise community awareness and support victims of child marriage and early pregnancy. Support for victims comes in the form of access to vocational training and includes “scholastic materials and other school contributions.” 

Grants out of Firelight are relatively modest. In Agape’s funding round, the foundation awarded a total of $204,000 to 15 community organizations in Africa.

One thing to know, and like, about Firelight is that it funds local groups with community roots that run deep. The reason for taking this approach, according to the foundation, is that “strong community roots demonstrates a good understanding of local needs, available resources, and social capital to put plans into action.”

Taking this approach to its partnership with Agape, Firelight began by creating what it calls “hotspot clusters” composed of local grantees working in and around Shinyanga. From there, Firelight and its partners began tackling the root causes of child marriage at the individual, family, community, and policy levels.

Not only did Firelight and its partners make significant headway at the local level, they also made major progress at the national level. In July 2016, due to the advocacy conducted by Firelight, Agape and its partners, along with other key stakeholders, the High Court of Tanzania outlawed child marriage.

This is a significant victory in the battle to end child marriage around the globe. But there is so much more work that needs to be done.

When a young girl is forced to marry before she is 18 years old, it keeps her locked in a poverty cycle and she is faced with a lifetime of deprivation on all fronts. It is unlikely that she will remain in school. She is more likely to be a victim of domestic violence. She is more likely to die from complications in pregnancy and childbirth. If she does give birth, her child is more likely to be stillborn or die within the first months of life. Every year, 15 million girls are married before they reach the age of 18. If there isn’t a significant reduction in the practice, an estimated 1.2 billion girls will become brides by 2050.