September 24, 2014

Taking action to end child marriage

Written by The Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health

This post originally appeared on the PMNCH website here. Reposted with permission.

22 SEPTEMBER 2014 | UN HEADQUARTERS, NEW YORK — PMNCH Chair Graça Machel joined together with Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird and other leaders in New York this week to call on UN Member States to adopt a standalone target on child marriage in the new post-2015 development goals. At a breakfast hosted by the Ford Foundation on Monday 22 September, Mrs Machel said: “We are just at the beginning of building our consciousness on child marriage. We need to establish targets so that we can mobilize the world to be aware and to act. We are talking of 15 million girls affected every year – in 10 years to come, there will be 150 million girls if we don’t keep this issue as high on the agenda as it should be.”

One in three girls in low- and middle-income countries are estimated to be married by age 18 – one in nine by age 15, according to UNFPA. Complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death among girls 15-19 in low- and middle-income countries, according to the World Health Organization.

Ending child marriage is recognized in the final report of the Open Working Group on the Sustainable Development Goals in the context of an example of a harmful gender-based practice as described in goal 5: “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls” (5.3: “Eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilations”). Mrs Machel and other leaders are calling for more distinct recognition of child marriage in the emerging post-2015 framework. The Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health’s 2014 consensus statement, Placing Women and Children at the Heart of the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Framework, calls for the elimination of early marriage to improve gender equality.

During the conversation with Mrs Machel, led by Girls Not Brides chair Mabel van Oranje, emphasized the imperative of linking global action with national and community leadership, as well as sustaining attention to this agenda over the long term. “Even when child marriage becomes a national development issue, you need to bring all stakeholders on board,” said Mrs Machel. “This includes involving parliamentarians to look at the legal age of marriage and especially civil society to translate national agendas into local agendas and to build alliances at that level. We need this to be a sustained agenda. We are talking about building resilience and capacities – this is not done in five years, it takes a generation.”

Child marriage has been a leading concern of The Elders, founded by Nelson Mandela in 2007 and to which Mrs Machel and other global human rights leaders such as Kofi Annan, Gro Harlem Brundlandt, Mary Robinson and Archbishop Desmond Tutu belong. “When The Elders started to embrace an issue that could break the cycle of discrimination and humiliation, we identified child marriage as a strategic issue. Today, it is an issue talked of everywhere – then, it was not,” recalled Mrs. Machel.

Foreign Minister Baird of Canada echoed Mrs Machel’s recollections, speaking both at the Ford Foundation breakfast, as well as at a second event on 22 September on child marriage in UN headquarters, co-hosted by the Governments of Italy, Canada, Zambia, Yemen and UNFPA. Remarking on the recent ascension of the child marriage issue to global attention, Mr Baird said: “Four years ago, I started to raise this issue internationally, but was pulled away and told that perhaps I didn’t understand the cultural nuances and sensitivities, and could I please tone it down, perhaps it could be talked about later? Now I am thrilled to see how we are working together on this issue, across groups. It’s gone from an uncomfortable issue to one that’s debated on the floor of the UN General Assembly in just four short years. Going forward, said Mr. Baird, “Canada strongly urges all member-states to support a standalone target on early forced marriage with indicators under appropriate goals.” The 22nd September event at the UN also featured examples from Zambia, Yemen and Malawi about national and community action now under way in support of ending child marriage, including legislative revisions in Yemen to enshrine an equal minimum age for marriage for boys and girls at 18 and new private-public entrepreneurship schemes in Zambia, supported by international donors and working across ministries.

Two young champions, Faith of Kenya and Nana of Niger, each related powerful stories of resisting attempts by family members to undergo female circumcision and early marriage to emerge as community leaders.

“It shames us all,” said Kate Gilmore, Deputy Executive Director of UNFPA. “How could it be? Too young to vote, but old enough to marry. Too young to be educated about sexual and reproductive health, but old enough to give birth … Tomorrow is a girl aged 10 today – if you can change that girl’s trajectory, you can change the world.”