In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), adolescents and youth face countless barriers to realizing their sexual and reproductive health and rights—from stigma surrounding access to contraception, to lack of comprehensive sexuality education, to child, early and forced marriage. More than a third of girls in DRC are married before their 18th birthday and roughly 10 percent are married before they turn 15 years old.

The practice of child marriage is often deeply entrenched in traditions of communities and is exacerbated by issues such as poverty and armed conflict. Child marriage violates girls’ rights and often results in increased risk of intimate partner violence, high rates of early pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. However, as part of its commitment to Family Planning 2020, the government of DRC is working to improve sexual and reproductive health outcomes for adolescents and youth by ending child marriages through education, awareness, women’s and girl’s empowerment and reforming laws and policies.

While the government’s commitment to end child marriages has been made for several years, there has been limited success. To accelerate progress, PAI has been working with Brady Bilala, the DRC country coordinator for the International Youth Alliance for Family Planning (IYAFP), to operationalize DRC’s anti-child marriage act and support the realization of girls’ human rights. With support from PAI’s YOUAccess Fund, IYAFP-DRC has convened a group of youth associations and nongovernmental organizations to advocate for the implementation of laws prohibiting child marriage to the government and other leaders. As a youth-led organization, IYAFP-DRC has used their unique perspective to increase awareness of the importance of preventing child marriage and keep the issue in the news. As a result of their advocacy, the Ministry of Health is close to endorsing a plan to implement these laws.

The plan to advance these laws is highly promising, in large part because young people themselves were involved in its development. Far too often, youth and adolescents are not engaged in the conversations and decisions that lead to policy and program development and implementation—even when those policies and programs directly impact them. Without meaningful engagement from young people, the desired outcome of policies and programs—like those intended to address adolescent sexual and reproductive health, end child marriage or address other forms of gender-based violence which impact young people—can’t be achieved.

Brady says it best: “when youth do not significantly participate in political discussions and strategies, decisions will not be as effective. This creates a huge gap between theory and practice, because everything is done for youth, without youth and against youth. There would also be low participation from adolescents and young people who would adopt these interventions.”

Thanks to the work of IYAFP-DRC and other youth-led organizations who are working to end child marriage and improve sexual and reproductive health outcomes for youth in DRC, the government now sees them as part of the solution. These combined efforts are critical to ensuring that women and girls can exercise their right to freely choose if, when and whom they wish to marry.