The inaugural International Day of the Girl Child is 11 October 2012. For its first observance, this year’s Day focuses on child marriage, which is a fundamental human rights violation and has an impact on all aspects of a girl’s life. Child marriage denies a girl of her childhood, disrupts her education, limits her opportunities, increases her risk of violence and abuse, jeopardizes her health and therefore constitutes an obstacle to the achievement of nearly every Millennium Development Goal and the development of healthy communities.
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By Priyanka Pruthi
NEW YORK, United States of America, 11 OCTOBER 2012 - “Let girls be girls, not brides,” said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon at a high-level discussion on ‘Ending Child Marriage’ in observance of the first International Day of the Girl Child.
|UNICEF correspondent Priyanka Pruthi reports on the United Nations call to end child marriage on the first International Day of the Girl Child. Watch in RealPlayer|
Mr. Ban said nothing illustrates the alarming level of violence and abuse faced by girls better than the issue of child marriage.
“Empowering girls is a moral imperative, matter of basic justice and equality. Investing in girls is a catalyst for changing the world...[W]e must work together for the day when every girl is treated with dignity and respect – that’s what this observance is about,” he said.
Child marriage a harmful practice
According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), more than 37,000 underage girls are married every day. If present trends continue, close to 150 million girls will be married by their eighteenth birthday within the next decade.
Ending child marriage is critical for achieving the Millennium Development Goals and inextricably linked to the economic growth of countries. Girls married young are divorced from opportunities to study and are more likely to remain poor. Being married young not only curbs their right to education, but also endangers their health: complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death among girls aged 15 to 19.
|On the occasion of the inaugural International Day of the Girl Child, a public service message from UNICEF Pakistan calls for an end to child marriage.|
Ending the practice a focus
International efforts aimed at ending the practice were at the centre of discussions moderated by the (United States) National Broadcasting Company’s Ann Curry. Guest speaker Archbishop Desmond Tutu, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Geeta Rao Gupta, UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin and UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet were among the other panelists.
Speaking out against the entrenched mindsets that treat women as second class citizens, Archbishop Tutu said he is as outraged by child marriages as he was by apartheid. “What has happened to us? How can we dismiss the 50 percent of the human population and say they are less than us? It is quite unconscionable. When you dehumanize someone, whether you like it or not, it dehumanizes you as well.”
Ms. Bachelet spoke of the vicious circle of gender inequality: “In the case of girls and women, they are seen as less valuable inside a society. Also, in many societies, girls are defined by marriage. Families link the future of the girl to the possibility of her being married…because in that culture, that’s what gives them their identity. Gender inequality is in the roots of child marriage, but child marriage also perpetuates gender inequality.”
The road to ending child marriage
Ms. Gupta believes the grip of culture and tradition on the most marginalized girls can be loosened, and that law plays a prominent role: “We see change all the time. There are incentives that need to be in place for culture and tradition to change…It requires concerted efforts, the right triggers…A first step is to have laws in place that maintain a minimum age of marriage as being 18.”
Other means to ending the harmful practice of child marriage were explored. Ms. Gupta described how implementing economic measures, though not effective by itself, is an important instrument. “One of the interventions we are working on in UNICEF that has worked well is to provide cash as an incentive to help girls stay unmarried,” she said.
|(Second from right) Chair of The Elders Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaks at the high-level discussion ‘Ending Child Marriage’ at United Nations headquarters, New York. Beside him on the dais are (left to right) Bangladesh State Minister for Women and Children Affairs Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury; United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon; and UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet.|
Dr. Osotimehin placed emphasis on education: “This is about the value we place on girls – that’s a global issue which may be masked in some countries. What we have to do going forward is to ensure that we provide young people access to education.”
Sharing the experience of her own country, panelist State Minister for Women and Children Affairs of Bangladesh Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury stressed that policies must be implemented effectively for any visible change to take place. “Birth registration and national identification certificates are helping in determining the age of the girl; this has helped in bringing down the incidences of child marriage. A lot of awareness-raising campaigns have also brought about behavioural change…through publicity of negative consequences on women…[A]dministering adolescent clubs has also helped.”
Dr. Osotimehin also emphasized the need for national governments to focus on girls. “We can’t do boutique programmes; we have to take them to scale. We need national governments to take responsibility for this as well,” he said.
The lack of investment in girls and the international community’s inability to place women and girls at the centre of development remain major challenges. Also highlighted as areas in which work must be done were: engaging men; fostering the energy of youth; and prioritizing the safety of girls – preventing violence against them.
“You are powerful, every single one of you,” said Archbishop Tutu in his closing statement. “Let each one of us be an apostle, be engaged and active.”