Too Young to Wed: Empowering Girls as Leaders of Tomorrow

This week, world leaders are meeting in New York for the annual meeting of Heads of State at the United Nations General Assembly. The gathering is an opportunity to discuss priorities in international affairs and issues that concern each of us in the global community.

At a side event, co-hosted by the Permanent Missions to the United Nations of Ghana, Canada and the Netherlands, in partnership with UNICEF and UNFPA, there was unanimous agreement that child marriage is an issue of global concern. Each of the host missions and organisations signalled their commitment to addressing the practice and encouraged other governments to play an active role in the movement to end child marriage.

 “I want to make sure girls have their rights and are not forced into marriage. What are you going to do?” 17 year-old Farwa asks UN delegates

Farwa , a 17 year-old girl from Pakistan drew on her own experiences and those of girls in her community to make a compelling case for action.

“I have come to participate in the UN General Assembly and to make sure that the issues facing girls in my country are heard,” she told diplomats from around the world. “I want to stop child marriages because it’s not a good thing. Girls who get married early do not have their rights to play and to get an education.”

“When I was in 8th grade, 14 years old, my parents decided they wanted to take me out of school and force me to get married because they could not afford my education expenditures. This made me very worried as I was fond of education and I wanted to learn, to do something better for me, for my parents and for my country. I was also frightened. It was against my dreams.”

Girls who get married early do not have their rights to play and to get an education.

Farwa

Farwa explained that she turned to her aunt who said she would pay her education costs and who was able to persuade Farwa’s parents that marriage was not the best option for her. Farwa stayed in school and was not married off. Her friend Sonia, however, was not so fortunate.

Sonia was just 12 when her father sold her off to a man who was 45 years old. Her father owed the man money but was not able to pay it so Sonia was given in marriage to pay his debts. She soon had a baby at 14 and, says Farwa, “her husband violates her rights and punches her many times… Sonia feels her parents have performed an injustice to her.”

“I feel very sad because she has the same dreams as me but she cannot change her dreams into reality,” added Farwa.

It was in the name of girls like Sonia that Farwa spoke to UN delegates, sharing their message that girls have rights and that girls must be supported to finish their education. “I am speaking in front of you because I want to make sure girls have their rights and are not forced into marriages. What are you going to do?” she closed, pointing at the audience.

Child marriage isn’t just a developing world problem; it is a problem for all of us

Angelique Kidjo, the internationally renowned music artist from Benin, spoke of her own experiences and of the role her father played in ensuring his daughters had every opportunity to thrive: “My father was my champion. My father stood against his own family and his whole society to make sure that the three girls that he had, had access to school and education. And he would stand against anyone who would come in and has him to give one of us in marriage. His answer always was: “Girls are not merchandise. They are human beings. I’m just a father and they have the right to decide their own life.

Angelique Kidjo cautioned that it was important that child marriage should not be seen as only a developing country issue. “We shouldn’t be hypocritical and say it only happens in developing countries… The idea that women are second-class citizens is not only an African issue, it’s all over the world… Child marriage is a global issue that we all have to have a solution for.”

Child marriage should be an issue of humanity, one that concerns every single one of us

John Baird, Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs
John Baird, the Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs, agreed, adding that child marriage happened to girls in his own country and that his government was determined to address this practice.
Minister Baird also spoke of the importance of raising issues like child marriage at international gatherings: “This should be an issue that gets talked about.” He added: “This shouldn’t be an issue of the north of the south, or white or black, or Christian or Muslim. This should be an issue of humanity, one that concerns every single one of us.”

Preventing child marriage must be included in the Post-2015 international development agenda

Dr Babatunde Osotimehin stressed that child marriage has to be a part of international development debates, telling the audience that we mustn’t forget the Post-2015 international development agenda. Ending child marriage, he said, “this issue has to be there”.

The Minister of Development from The Netherlands, Lilliane Ploumen, concurred, adding “It’s very important to get a goal on preventing child marriages in the Post-2015 agenda because […] once it’s on the agenda all of us need to work on empowering communities and girls economically and socially.”

Action underway in Africa

Hanna S. Tetteh, Minister of Foreign Affairs from Ghana, estimated that one in four girls in Ghana don’t choose when they marry. The Ghanaian government, she said, was determined to address this problem. It has already amended criminal code to make early and forced marriage an offence and within the Domestic Violence and Victim Support Unit, there is a special section dedicated to addressing cases of early marriage.

The First Lady of Burkina Faso spoke of the initiatives underway to address child marriage in her country, including a national campaign against child marriage, known under the French translation of Girls Not Brides “Filles Pas Epouses”.

Other highlights from ‘Too Young to Wed’

  • “Education is one of the best strategies for protecting girls and preventing child marriage.” Helene Gayle, CEO of Care International
  • “With a lot of energy, focus and determination, we can end this practice,” John Baird, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Canada.
  • “Norms and culture can change. Norms are not immutable and they change in our lifetime, they don’t necessarily take several generations. I know that from my own family… My mother-in-law was forced to marry at 16,” Geeta Rao Gupta, Deputy Execute Director, UNICEF.
  • “What makes the change is when parents want more for their daughters and the single biggest driver of that is education… Education changes people’s perceptions of girls,” Geeta Rao Gupta, Deputy Execute Director, UNICEF.
  • “I will continue until my last breath to fight for the girls of Africa and the world because without the future we are nothing.” Angelique Kidjo.
  • “We have to give girls the confidence to say I am a human being and I want to be counted,” Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director, UNFPA.
  • “Culture can change and you can change harmful traditions, but campaigns can shorten the time… Everything can change in one generation or more but only if you put in effort. Just waiting for [change] takes too long,” Emma Bonino, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Italy.