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"Too Young to Wed" CSW side event summary

14 March 2013

Too Young to Wed

Panel Discussion

57th Commission on the Status of Women

March 7, 2013


Too Young to Wed panelFrom left, Tim Costello, Lakshmi Sundaram, Babatunde Osotimehin, Nyaradzayi Gumbonvanda, Margaret Mensah-Williams, and Michelle Bachelet participate in the "Too Young to Wed" panel discussion at Dag Hammarskjold Library Auditorium at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, March 7, 2013. INSIDER IMAGES/Gary He/United Nations Foundation.

Governments, civil society and other global and local actors came together to tackle all forms of violence against women and girls at the 57th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women from March 4-15, 2013. The Governments of Bangladesh, Malawi and Canada, and a host of partners spanning various global health and development sectors, seized the occasion to convene a high-level panel on child marriage on March 7, in support of Every Woman Every Child.

One in three young women aged 20 to 24 is married before the age of 18 in developing countries. This is a denial of her rights, disrupting access to education and increasing the risk of dying from complications during pregnancy and childbirth – a leading cause of death for girls aged 15 to 19 in low and middle-income countries. This event gave visibility to the issue in the context of violence against women, highlighting child marriage as a destructive and harmful human rights violation that will affect more than 140 million girls between 2011 and 2020, or one girl every 3 seconds.

Speakers included heads of UN agencies, members of parliament and the diplomatic community,  as well as leaders and advocates from civil society and faith-based organizations including a special video broadcast of a child bride who escaped her abusive marriage and now advocates for women and girls in her Maasai community in Tanzania. Panelists described the practice of child marriage as having serious social, economic and cultural consequences that endanger the lives of girls worldwide, and in many cases end their prospects for growth and development.  But they also focused on  a broad range of concrete, practical, and innovative solutions that could eliminate the practice while strengthening global security, increasing access to education, and improving maternal and child health. The overall message for those attending was: We all have a role to play in ending this harmful practice. Remarks from the event are further summarized below:

Dr. Carole Presern, Executive Director of PMNCH and the event facilitator, introduced the panel, pointing out that child marriage is an issue that cuts across the entire development community, impacting every girl’s rights to health, education, security and protection. Reminding the leaders and advocates gathered of the 600 million girls worldwide who are currently child brides, Dr. Presern praised those in the room for their commitment to ending child marriage, thanking them for their presence at the event, for raising their voices about the issue and for adding their signtures to a petition put forward by World YWCA calling on the CSW to pass a strong resolution for cross-sector action. Adolescent girls have a right to hopes, possibilities, lives, choice, and freedom, she said. She urged a focus on innovative approaches to preventing child marriage and dealing with its consequences, in support of the Every Woman Every Child movement led by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. “We all have a role in reducing child marriage and ensuring that girls remain girls and not wives or mothers,” she declared. 

Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, General Secretary, World YWCA and panel moderator then opened the session by noting that, even as the panelists sat at a table physically to discuss the issues, they “are on [their]… feet in this struggle for human rights, for the rights of the daughters of this world and also the young women and the girls.” Gumbonzvanda explained that during the 57th CSW, the YWCA is asking the United Nations to issue a stand-alone statement on the issue of child marriage and a commitment by member states to end child marriage. They have started a petition asking for this special resolution to end child marriage that, within just ten days, has garnered over 4,000 signatures worldwide.

The Hon. Catherine Gotani Hara MP, Minister of Health of Malawi spoke of the realities of child marriage in her country and aroud the world, pointing out that globally there are 67 million child brides, and that if current trends continue, by the year 2020 there will be 142 million more girls married before their 18th birthday. “These girls spend days out of school, at risk, marginalized, and poor,” said Hara, pointing out that rural poverty is at the root of high child marriage prevalence. “Child marriage tramples on sexual reproductive health and human rights, the right to education, the right to choose whether or not to marry, the right to choose whether or not to have children, and the right to freedom from ill treatment.” 

Hara also discussed the actions her government of Malawi is taking to improve these realities for millions of girls by ending child marriage. Currently in the country, 50% of girls are married before the age of 18, and about 20% of girls between 15 and 19 years old have started childbearing. Ending child marriage in Malawi will both improve the lives of these young girls by respecting their rights and reduce marternal mortality rates in the country. To end child marriage, the government is addressing the traditions and socioeconomic factors that perpetuate the practice. They have formed a Chief's Council of the Presidential Initiative on Maternal Health and Safe Motherhood to collaborate with traditional groups. For those already married, Malawi works to ensure those girls are allowed back in school after pregnancy and childbirth. “As parents, guardians, community and religious leaders, we must always bear in mind and remember the very idea that young women have the right to select their own partners, that choosing whom to marry and when to leave must be a personal reason based on love and individual will,” said Hara. “It is for these reasons that all people of conscience all over the world should join hands to carry out innovative approaches to stop the damaging menace of child brides.”

H.E. Dr. A.K. Abdul Momen, Permanent Representative of Bangladesh reinforced that stopping child marriage is a high priority for the government of Bangladesh as well. He noted the irony that girls are married young partly because they are considered an economic burden, but this practice puts girls in poverty and ends their prospects for growth and development. Thus, Bangladesh has taken concrete steps toward ending the practice. For example, the National Child Policy Act of 2011 defined children as those below the age of 18, and the Child Marriage Restrain Act set the legal minimum age for marriage at 18 for girls and at 21 for boys. Punitive measures are in place for those who practice child marriage. Girls’ education is free up to the undergraduate level through provisional stipends that are given upon agreement not to marry if below the age of 18. “If you educate a man, you educate an individual,” said Momen. “ If you educate a female, you educate a family and a society.”

H.E. Guillermo Rishchynski, Permanent Representative of Canada opened his remarks by quoting the Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird, who has said, “When women play an active role in society, so many other problems are resolved and things we hope to achieve become possible: global security, access to education, and improved maternal and child health.” Mr. Rischynski went on to emphasize that Canada is committed to helping end early forced marriage, and to state that he hopes that the momentum built from the International Day of the Girl and the 57th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women to end early forced marriage will continue. He emphasized three main messages around child marriage: first, girls play a fundamental role in society and supporting them will help build healthy, fair, and robust communities; second, early forced marriage has serious consequences and puts the lives of girls at risk with pregnancy, childbirth, and lasting poverty without education; and finally, partnerships are essential and the only way to impact real change.

Speaking from her experience as an effective public servant and legislator, the Hon. Margaret Mensah-Williams MP, Vice-Chairperson of the National Council, Namibia pointed out that the Parliament and Inter- Parliamentary Union members have a responsibility for oversight on the issue of child marriage.  They must ensure both that laws are in place and that they are implemented. Ms. Mensah-Williams described that parliamentarians can go to their communities, especially rural areas, and ask for registration of traditional marriages to gather data on how many children are married illegally, yet with parental approval.  Parliaments must also ensure that different ministries in government work together to oversee programs preventing child marriage. Members of parliament must then work with their ministries to put policies in place that make it easier for girls to stay in school and less likely for parents to choose child marriage. For example, Namibia is working to put in place birth registration systems, to guarantee that primary education is free, and to build sanitary facilities for girls to help keep girls in school. Lastly, Ms. Mensah-Williams said that the IPU encourages  every parliament to design a gender sensitive budget. This entails educating members of parliament about the importance of gender-sensitive bathrooms, of access and availability of food in schools, and the need for adequate legal protection of girls laws. Girls must be educated about both laws and sexual and reproductive health. In Namibia, sexual intercourse with a girl below the age of 16 is considered rape, and this legal knowledge must be made more widespread.  “As women and men, we have to stand together,” she said.

Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director, UN Women stood strong for women and girls, saying “We want a commitment of governments that after this resolution something will happen and women will improve their lives, including child marriage.” She further elaborated that UN Women has clear goals from the 57th CSW, noting that a strengthening of norms and international standards is not the only aim -- UN Women also hopes for a concrete, action-oriented resolution that includes child marriage. This is an opportunity for committed governments to present a resolution aligning child marriage with other forms of violence. With the overall theme of CSW being violence against women, it’s important to note the relationship between violence against women and child marriage. Regardless of different backgrounds, in general there is consensus that child brides are mostly forced into marriage and it is a harmful practice to girls that limits their possibilities. Thus child marriage is a form of gender-based violence with physical, sexual, and emotional consequences. For example, frequently the girls are economically dependent, lose the freedom to interact with their family and peers, and have violent initiations into sexual relations without the ability to demand protection. Ms. Bachelet further noted that there are many countries that have legislation against child marriage. However, these laws are weakly enforced because the system that should ensure implementation is not prepared to do so. Governments must prepare the police, the judicial system, schools, families, and religious leaders. Women should be empowered and given the chance to be leaders, which will inspire parents to treat their children differently.

Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director, UNFPA spoke strongly against child marriage, calling for action on behalf of the world’s largest ever youth population including and especially young adoelscent girls: “As we all go into the post-2015 space, we must remember the 600 million adolescent girls out there,” he said. “Let us train them, let us educate them, let us give them their space, protect their rights. They will change the world.” He noted that women should not be psychologically and physically abused by marrying before they know their own identities. Frequently, a man wants to prove his fertility soon after marriage regardless of the age of his wife. The younger she is, the less empowered she is to negotiate anything. But the global community has a responsibility to empower girls to reach their full potential. No matter what laws are made, governments must work with local communities to sustain efforts to raise the status of women and girls. Dr. Osotimehin further emphasized the importance of access to voluntary family planning services. In Ethiopia for example, UNFPA has helped raise the average age of marriage and provided family planning to help keep girls in school.  Those who are already married must be given long-term family planning so they can return to school. Lastly, Dr. Babatunde expressed UNFPA support for a resolution from Member States for ending child marriage. Integral to this would be sexual and reproductive health and rights, which he urged must be accepted “without qualification.”

Tim Costello, CEO, World Vision Australia, opened his remarks by posing a question to the panel members and attendees: How can religious leaders, who are among the most influential opinion leaders in faith communities, help to end child marriage? Mr. Costello explained that more than 80% of people living in the developing world have strong religious traditions, and religious leaders are the gatekeepers in those communities. To end child marriage, one must work with these religious traditions, and there must be discussions of human rights. When working with faith communities, themes of human rights and equality must be sought out in the original faith stories, thus permitting leaders to stay faithful to religious traditions.

Programs can work to change perceptions of men and women in communities. For example, World Vision has programs that speak with men in religious communities about what equality means in the eyes of God. They help communities to understand that even within faith and tradition, there can be change. “Religion can be the answer, not the problem,” he urged.

Lakshmi Sundaram, Global Coordinator, Girls Not Brides pointed out that child marriage is a cross-cutting issue linked to other development sectors. To end child marriage, we must determine how to integrate child marriage into other development actions rather than how to prioritize it over other issues. No progress will be made with any development indicators if millions of girls do not have an education. Advocates should try to work with existing groups to make sure resources go as far as possible, and programs must be willing to be adaptable and sensitive to changing contexts. The most successful programs are those that are culturally specific and community based.  Programs must determine those who are the decision makers in a community and work based on these power dynamics. Governments have a role in program expansion and must utilize local knowledge.  Government and local partnership can lead to wide-scale expansion. This expansion must be coupled with large-scale cultural efforts.

Mereso Kiluso , a 29-year-old former child bride turned community advocate, made her voice heard during the session as well. Though Ms. Kiluso was unable to join the discussion in person due to delays in the visa process, having had to first obtain a birth certificate and passport (one common contributing problem for child brides is the lack of registration systems, with many girls having neither birth nor death certificates thus having invisible status at these key life events). But event attendees and panelists were able to hear remarks from her via a special broadcast video in which she told her story of having been married off to a man in his 70s before she finished primary school, having five children and suffering increasing abuse during their marriage. She described finding the strength and support network to leave and to become an advocate in her Masaai community through YWCA . Her story was hailed by all panelists as symbolic not only of the dangers and rights violations inherent to child marriage, but also of the importance empowering women and girls as a crucial part of the solution.

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*Note: Unless specified as quotations, the above includes summaries of the March 7 conversation and are not meant to reflect precise comments.