VOW for Girls uses weddings to tackle child marriage globally | Health, Medicine and Fitness

By GLENN GAMBOA – AP Business Writer

Hope Nankunda fights to keep young Ugandan girls in school and out of marriage until they turn 18.

It is a calling that began for Nankunda as a teacher, when she found herself spending more time advising her students than engaging in classroom teaching.

“They share the challenges in their communities, in their homes, and most of those challenges have a lot to do with sexual abuse, being forced into marriage in exchange for food, especially during lockdown,” said said Nankunda, the founder and executive director of Raising Teenagers Uganda as well as coordinator of Girls Not Brides Uganda. “They also have a lot to do with the rise in teen pregnancy cases.”

Although Nankunda and his nonprofits have achieved some goals, including Uganda passing a law banning marriages of anyone under 18, COVID-19 has caused some setbacks to his crusade. . Experts estimate that during the pandemic, an additional 13 million child brides worldwide could marry over the next decade, on top of the typical annual rate of 12 million.

Nankunda and other advocates sought more support and found it from an unexpected source – VOW for Girls, a non-profit organization backed by elements of the global marriage industry. With 2022 set to be a banner year for weddings — around 2.5 million ceremonies in America alone, according to Shane McMurray, CEO of research firm The Wedding Report — those donations could be bigger than ever.

VOW for Girls plans to increase its fundraising this week in an attempt to persuade newly engaged couples on Valentine’s Day to plan weddings that include donations to help groups like Raising Teenagers Uganda. It will also ask marriage-aligned brands to pledge donations and other commitments to end child marriage.

Clay Dunn, CEO of VOW for Girls, said the group is anticipating a potentially strong year.

“Although we are only at the start of 2022, we are already seeing record engagements from brands, wedding professionals and engaged couples,” he said. “The couples who say ‘yes’ this year are already helping girls say ‘I can’ to their dreams.”

The idea to combine these ideas came from Mabel van Oranje, a human rights activist who had attended a ceremony where the couple asked for charitable donations instead of gifts.

Dunn calls it van Oranje’s “Ah-ha” moment: “What if we could work with engaged couples, brands and wedding professionals to create a moment of philanthropy as people celebrate love?”

Van Oranje pitched the idea to Ford Foundation President Darren Walker, who signed on as a co-founder, and then to social impact agency Hive. The Hive co-founders said they could see poetry in the idea – using a couple’s happiest day to help prevent trauma for a young girl.

Hive CEO Jenifer Willig said VOW for Girls now has a sustainable revenue stream as new couples marry each year, meaning there are potential donations through gift registries, purchases dresses, venue rentals and wedding planners and photographers.

“We want to raise money, but we also want to raise awareness about this issue,” said Willig, whose social media campaigns have garnered 143 million impressions and the support of ‘Wonder Woman’ star Gal Gadot and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg. “People don’t know that a girl gets married every three seconds in the world.”

Justin Warshaw, CEO of wedding dress designer and manufacturer Justin Alexander, said that while his company has always donated to charity, its connection to the cause is different.

“I love that VOW for Girls focuses on female empowerment as one of their main pillars, but also health, education and personal safety,” he said.

He added that his grandmother Shirley, who founded the company in 1946, would agree.

“It was like an ode to Shirley, who was a trailblazer and an inspiration to me.”

McMurray of The Wedding Report said engaged Millennial and Gen Z couples are now more likely to use their marriages to promote racial and gender equality, seeking donations instead of gifts or using their gatherings to raise awareness for causes important to them. These trends make VOW for Girls hopeful for the future.

“There’s such a natural alignment between people celebrating love and giving girls everywhere the opportunity to do the exact same thing,” Dunn said. “Our whole vision is a world where no child is ever a bride. We are building this community of people who are committed to ensuring that girls everywhere can live the life they love.

This is what Nankunda is trying to do with Raising Teenagers Uganda, with financial and technological help from VOW for Girls.

“When we save girls and this story is shared on social media and websites,” she said, “we can inspire so many other young girls and give them the message that this is not finished, that you can still do it in life.”

Nankunda says her programs aim to provide Ugandan girls with safe spaces where they can learn and see potential futures that don’t involve marrying off as children and quickly becoming pregnant. In some cases, this means giving bikes to girls so they can better avoid being attacked on the way to their schools. In other cases, it means giving families goats to provide milk and income so their daughters can continue their education instead of going to work to help support the family.

The programs have been successful, with many villages reporting no teenage pregnancies or marriages. But the pandemic has derailed that progress. When schools closed, teenage pregnancies and child marriages increased again.

“I choose not to lose hope,” Nankunda said. “I know it’s a matter of time.”

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