First UN International Day of the Girl Child: Joining forces to prevent early marriage

11 OCTOBER 2012 | GENEVA -

Report

On the First International Day of the Girl Child, a special panel discussion themed ‘Ending Child Marriage’ was hosted by the Permanent Representation of the Kingdom of Netherlands, UNFPA and WHO. The discussion provided a platform on which to inform on the scale of early child marriage, the factors that contribute to it, its health and social effects and ongoing initiatives to prevent it. The event gathered participants from Missions in Geneva, International NGOs, UN Organizations and more poignantly young student representatives from the International School Geneva.

Ms Nyaradzani Gumbonzvanda, General Secretary of the World YWCA moderated the panel and congratulated the partners on their moment of collective boldness in recognizing the day for girls.

Dr Reinout Vos, Deputy Permanent Representative of the Kingdom of the Netherlands gave the opening remarks, referring to child marriage as “a hidden crisis” in which the voices of its victims, mostly poor young girls, are seldom heard. He pointed to the harmful effects of child marriage on the psychological well- being of girls, the reduction in employment prospects and isolation from participation in their community. He stated, “there is a growing consensus that child marriage is a violation of human rights and should be stopped”.

Dr Vos also highlighted The Netherlands’ long support of sexual and reproductive health and rights, of which family planning is an important part” leading to positive results notably with respect to low teenage pregnancy and abortion rates. Netherlands, he said will continue to be actively involved in issues related to sexual and reproductive health and rights and sexuality of adolescents in the lead up to the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) + 20 in 2014. He concluded by encouraging participants to share their experiences, emphasizing that “it is of utmost importance that governments, UN agencies and other international organizations, as well as civil society, work closely together and join to prevent child marriage”.

According to a new report - Marrying too Young: End Child Marriage - released by UNFPA to coincide with the worldwide inaugural event, one in three girls in developing countries (excluding China) will marry before they are 18. One out of nine girls will be married before their 15th birthday. Most of these girls are poor, less-educated, and living in rural areas. In the next decade 14.2 million girls under 18 will be married every year. This will rise to an average of 15.1 million girls a year, starting in 2021 until 2030, if present trends continue.

Dr Flavia Bustreo of the World Health Organization (WHO), laid bare some startling statistics and risks of these early marriages to the health of the child. According to the statistics presented, every 3 seconds another girl becomes a child bride, 1 out of 3 become brides before 8 and 70,000 girls before the age of 18 die during pregnancy or child birth related complications. She also pointed out that during the 90 minutes discussion, 12 girls would have died of complications in child birth for which they were not prepared. She stressed the importance of education, raising awareness and in-country programs to curb this problem.

Ms Marie-Louise Koch Wegter, Deputy Permanent Representative of Denmark, echoed the general outrage expressed throughout the discussions. She highlighted Denmark’s support in the advancement of women and child rights, citing long standing partnerships with Oxfam in Yemen among several other initiates, and referenced the new strategy for development cooperation which aims to combat poverty and promote human rights. Denmark, she pledged, would always be among the front runners in defending and protecting child rights.

There were personal testimonies from panellist living in the context of the experience. Ms Monica Tobias, General Secretary of the YWCA in Namibia painted a devastating picture of child marriage, its roots in poverty, polygamy, rape and abuse. She called on governments to respond by getting to the cultural roots of this phenomenon and correcting mind-sets.

H.E. Minelik Alemu Getahun, Ambassador of the Permanent Mission of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia highlighted some of the work been done in-country such as making primary education universal and equal for both boys and girls and plans by the government to intensify the relationship with religious groups and civil society to prevent child marriage.

Ms Alison LeClaire Christie, Deputy Permanent Representative, Permanent Mission of Canada made the closing remarks proclaiming ‘we are poised to make tremendous difference, yet there is lot to be done’. She stated that ending early marriage needs to take place in a wider context of goals, with laws to implement, funding of best practices, targeting the right audience and among other things, encouraging girls to be involved in sports which empowers. “The wellbeing of the girl child is a priority, because it is right and it is just”.

From the floor

A young student leader from Kenya took the stage on behalf of her peers and spoke of the “widespread belief (in some cultures) that marrying young provides a safe secure passage into adulthood”. She pointed to the contrary, as instead,” it violates the girls’ rights, limits opportunities and disrupts education- no cultural, economic or political reason could justify the damage”. Despite the worrying statistics, there was some good news and indication of progress.

The representative of YWCA Egypt also described progress, related to the country’s legislative reform and the passing of the 2008 child law, raising the age of marriage to 18. The general consensus however, was that there was still much to be done.

Representatives from UNFPA, UNICEF, PMNCH, Girls not brides and the Inter Parliamentarians Union made brief statements from the floor on some of the work their organizations were doing to support ending child marriages. UNFPA work within affected communities and believes in the importance of finding community owned solutions and advocating for girls to stay in school. UNICEF highlighted the work with 35 countries and governments to promote positive social change at community level. The agency back programs that identify the causes of child marriage in support of A Promise Renewed.

Girls not brides noted that child marriage is not given the attention it deserves and requires action at all levels-community action and policy at the international and national level. To mark the occasion, the Partnership described events taking place around the world and the desire to use strength of the group to put an end to child marriage.

In total, more than 50 Girls Not Brides members carried out activities on Day of the Girl across 29 countries, and national partnerships to address child marriage were launched in Turkey and Tanzania. The global scope of the activities underlined that child marriage is a truly universal problem and emphasised that there is a growing global movement determined to see an end to this practice.

For PMNCH, ending child marriage is an opportunity to “try to do together, what we can’t do as individual organizations’. With the finalisation of a strategy to increase focus on adolescents and young people, PMNCH anticipates prioritising adolescents at the highest risk of reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health problems. PMNCH and and partners launched a Knowledge Summary on child marriage to mark the occasion, which emphasizes the importance of antenatal care for married pregnant adolescents, given their vulnerability to morbidity and mortality.

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