How One Organization Is Tapping Into the Lucrative Wedding Industry to Combat Child Marriage

In the time it takes to read this article, several young girls around the world will be forced to end their childhoods early and become child brides — 20 every minute, by one estimate. Child marriage, which disproportionately affects girls, impacts 1 out of 5 girls worldwide. But because this problem has particularly deep historic, cultural and religious roots, it’s one that requires creative solutions.

One of those solutions, VOW for Girls, was born in 2018. While international organizations — including the United Nations and Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage — tackle the problem from a global perspective, VOW was created to raise and move money to the small, local community groups tackling the child marriage epidemics in their own backyards. 

Another thing that sets VOW apart? The money it’s moving to local organizations comes from the wedding industry, including companies that profit from weddings, individual wedding professionals, and couples getting ready to tie the knot themselves. The alliance is proving to be a winning formula. VOW for Girls reported net assets of just $190,000 in 2019. As of 2021, that figure stood at $3.5 million.

VOW for Girls is one of three entities working to end child marriage that were spearheaded by Mabel van Oranje, whose international, award-winning activism includes serving as the first CEO of The Elders, an association of global leaders founded by Nelson Mandela in 2007. Oranje helped found Girls Not Brides in 2011. In October 2018, she partnered with Ford Foundation President Darren Walker to launch VOW as a sister organization with Girls First Fund, a donor collaborative formed to move money to community-led efforts to end child marriage. The founders’ goal is for VOW to become the primary, sustainable source of income for Girls First.

VOW currently receives operating support from the Ford Foundation and Open Society Foundation, the soon-to-sunset Kendeda Fund, and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey’s #startsmall. “We’re fundraising for operations separately,” Dunn said, which allows VOW to move 100% of the money it raises through its partnerships within the wedding industry to grassroots groups working to end child marriage.

“When children are forced into marriage, they’re denied access to education and opportunity, opening them up to abuse and neglect,” said Walker of his foundation’s support for VOW’s efforts. “At its core, ending child marriage is about equality and safety, and in order to halt its devastating negative impacts, we need to think differently about how we can collectively change attitudes and pave a path forward. The power of an effort like VOW lies in its unexpected bridging of worlds and industry sectors to empower young girls in other parts of the world to live freely and to their fullest potential.” Since their founding, Ford has moved $2 million to VOW and the Girls First Fund.

VOW’s traditional philanthropic partners recognize the potential of this model, Dunn said. “They see us engaging new audiences around the issue of child marriage and girls’ rights globally, and they believe that we can create this new source of revenue to support girls worldwide.” VOW reports that, so far, 76% of the money it’s moving to the Girls First Fund is coming from companies within the wedding industry, with 24% raised by wedding professionals and couples heading down the aisle. The organization’s list of partners includes well-known wedding-industry players like The Knot, as well as wedding dress designers, resource websites for brides, and the National Gay Wedding Association.

This deep collaboration with the splashy, $160 billion-plus global wedding industry allows VOW to raise awareness in addition to money. Examples include The White Dress Society, a company founded to support independent bridal store owners, which Dunn said has featured VOW at its events and introduced the nonprofit to leading independent retailers, in addition to its financial support. When Names for Good — a manufacturer of matching personalized bracelets for bridal parties — created a dedicated VOW bracelet collection, Dunn said that celebrity support eventually led to a segment on the TODAY show.

Marrying couples have also included VOW in their own vow-related celebrations. One couple Dunn cited listed the nonprofit on their wedding registry, raising more than $3,000.

The through-the-roof costs of modern weddings may seem a bit wasteful and over-the-top. But the partnership model diverts at least some of that indulgence, and allows people to connect with a meaningful cause during a personally meaningful event. The work being done by VOW for Girls’ grantee partners is vital and includes providing girls with education, job opportunities, and in some cases, individual legal support. Currently, Dunn said, VOW and the Girls First Fund are funding organizations in six countries with both a high prevalence of child marriage and what Dunn called a willingness to lower their child marriage statistics. Uganda is one such country, where the practice is both widespread and illegal. 

Rather than parachuting in with ideas and money, though, Dunn said that VOW and the Girls First Fund have instead used the advice of local leaders, and local girls, to identify underfunded, “amazing” organizations in the field.

“Everything that we’re doing in terms of the funding is about supporting local solutions where local leaders are saying, ‘This is what’s right in my community,’ and we’re funding and learning along with them,” Dunn said. 

And much like the global wedding industry itself, which is projected to nearly triple by 2030, VOW for Girls also has plans to grow. Dunn said that the organization has created a short list of target countries for expansion, and plans to announce roughly 25 to 30 new grantee partners in 2023.