The first International Day of the Girl Child, established through UNGA resolution 66/170 in 2011, focused on ending child marriage – the formal marriage or informal union of at least one person under the age of 18. According to Plan International, one in three girls in the developing world is married by the age of 18, therefore facing reduced opportunities. This article covers UN and civil society events, held in Geneva and NYC, to draw international attention to this issue.
• One in every three girls in the developing world is married by the age of 18.
• One in seven marries before they reach the age of 15.
• An extra year of secondary school increases a girl’s potential income by 15 to 25%.
• An increase of only 1% in girls secondary education attendance adds 0.3% to a country’s GDP.
• Every three seconds, a girl is forced or coerced to marry.
• 75 million girls around the world are out of school.
• Globally, one in three girls is denied a secondary education.
• Girls’ primary school completion rates are below 50% in most poor countries.
• Every year, 10 million girls are forced or coerced into marriage.
Source: Plan International’s Because I am a Girl campaign website.
For the occasion, several UN human rights experts released a joint statement in which they emphasize that early marriage is a violation of all the rights of a child. It affects children’s rights to education, health, and participation in decision-making processes. “As with all forms of slavery, forced early marriages should be criminalized. They cannot be justified on traditional, religious, cultural or economic grounds,” the statement reads. The UN human rights experts call on all States to increase the age of marriage to 18 years of age for all boys and girls, with no exceptions.
Although child marriage happens among both boys and girls, the main focus in New York and Geneva was on strengthening the rights of girls. An event in Geneva, jointly organized by the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Permanent Mission of Kingdom of the Netherlands in Geneva, emphasized the severe consequences of child marriage, which include unwanted pregnancies, children being mothers of children, abortions, psychological distress, and the negative impacts on education and school enrollment and on development in general. Dr. Flavia Bustreo, Assistant Director-General for Family, Women’s and Children’s Health at WHO explained that 70,000 girls under 18 die every year because of pregnancy complications. That is the equivalent of 190 girls per day.
There was a general consensus that the rights of the girl child need to be included in the UN’s post-2015 development agenda. Moreover, for the current Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to be met within their deadline of 2015, the focus on girls must be stepped up.
The latter was reiterated by Subhadra Belbase, Special Advisor for Plan International, at the launch of the global campaign Because I am a Girl and of the 2012 report on The State of the World’s Girls. Although women’s rights have become increasingly embedded in the development agenda, she cautioned that girls’ rights and needs are still largely neglected.
At the same event, Vernor Munoz, Coordinator of the PhD Programme on Latin-American Studies at the National University of Costa Rica, argued that the question involved a discussion of a new form of masculinity and of the need to overcome a patriarchic culture. A new world is possible only if men change, he said.
In New York, a High-Level panel discussion on “Ending Child Marriage” was co-hosted by UNFPA, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) and Girls Not Brides, a global partnership of NGOs under the aegis of The Elders. There, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that empowering girls is a moral imperative, a matter of basic justice and equality, as well as a critical point for achieving the MDGs. “Women and girls are not second-class citizens and we must do our part to let girls be girls, and not brides,” he asserted. He also paid tribute to Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot by the Taliban because of her campaigning for girls’ education. “The terrorists showed what frightens them most: a girl with a book,” he asserted.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Chair of The Elders, stated he felt about child marriage exactly how he felt about apartheid and described such marriages as a crime against humanity: “By forcing girl children to get married, we dismiss half of the population as human beings. It dehumanizes these girls, and therefore it dehumanizes us as well,” he underscored.
Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury, State Minister for Women and Children Affairs of Bangladesh, highlighted that child marriage increases chances for girls of being and remaining poor – reducing their life-long opportunities. She insisted on the necessity to raise awareness, especially in rural and remote areas, in order to change the mindset underlying these conditions.
Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of UNFPA, said this issue was about the value we place on women and girls. He insisted on the need to promote universal access to health services and education – including sexual education – to empower young people and enable them to make the right choices and to break the continuous circle of poverty. He lamented the lack of investment from governments to address this issue and insisted on the need to scale up existing programmes. UNFPA committed to invest another 20 million dollars in this fight, he declared.
Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of UN Women, explained that child marriage is sometimes considered as a protection against non-marital sexual activity. Ms. Bachelet also stressed the social pressure on girls who are expected to fulfill defined roles; in this regard, marriage gives them a social identity. Child marriages are thus caused by gender inequality while they also contribute to it. She outlined the need for implementation of laws passed along with concrete policies for women’s empowerment. She also mentioned the importance of monitoring and accountability and described this fight as a “whole-community task.” It is crucial to work with families and religious leaders, to foster youth leadership on this issue as well as to engage boys and men and encourage men championing, she argued. Ms. Bachelet also provided recommendations at the intergovernmental level, calling for enhanced South-South cooperation and underlining the importance of information and good practices sharing. Finally, she heralded the upcoming 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), which will focus on the elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls.
Finally, Archbishop Desmond Tutu expressed his optimism, considering this High-level meeting as heartwarming: “Do not underestimate the importance of what is happening today. We are on the winning side and we will win for the sake of our world. We are unable to measure the gains we will get from this,” he concluded.
To support many of the above-mentioned arguments, UNFPA released a new report Marrying too Young: End Child Marriage. This statistical exploration of child marriage finds that girls who are poor, have little or no education, and live in rural areas, are most likely to enter into child marriages. Girls living in rural areas of the developing world are twice as likely to wed before the age of 18 as their urban counterparts, and girls with no education are over three times more likely to do so than those with secondary or higher education.
Similar to the aforementioned human rights experts and panellists, the report calls on governments and leaders to end child marriage by: enacting and enforcing national laws that raise the age of marriage to 18, for both girls and boys; using data to identify and target geographic “hotspots,” which have high numbers of girls at risk of child marriage; expanding prevention programmes that empower girls at risk of child marriage and address the root causes underlying the practice; and mitigating the harmful impact of child marriage on girls.
The report Marrying too Young: End Child Marriage can be downloaded here.
Below is a selection of initiatives and information sources on the International Day of the Girl Child and the fight for girls’ rights.
• A message by the Director-General of the International Labor Organization
• UN Women
• United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) with its Education for All Global Monitoring Report
• Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women
• Convention on the Rights of the Child
• UNiFEED with a video of Archbishop Desmond Tutu
• United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR)
• The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) launched a Tech Needs Girls Prize on the occasion.
Social Media Interaction:
• Follow the discussion on Twitter by using the hashtags #girlchild #endchildmarriage.
This article is also available in French.