UN Panel Offers Stepping Stones Toward Ending Child Marriage

In a significant development in the global fight to end child marriage, the UN General Assembly hosted its first-ever panel discussion focused on ending child, early, and forced marriage. Moderated by Mabel van Oranje, Chair of the Board of Girls Not Brides, the panel featured representatives of UN Women and UNICEF, as well as experts such as IWHC partner Ndodeye Bassey-Obongha of Girls Power Initiative in Nigeria.

The issue of child marriage has been discussed at the UN before, but never in such depth and at such a public forum.  The panelists touched on the myriad consequences for girls, including psychological trauma, sexual violence and abuse, high-risk pregnancies and reproductive health problems, greater risks of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, lack of education and economic independence, and loss of supportive social networks. The panelists emphasized that child marriage is a human rights violation and must be ended, but we must also keep the individual girls, both those at risk and who are already married, at the center of our thinking and provide them with the support and services they so critically need.  Bassey-Obongha in particular emphasized the importance of providing safe spaces for girls that would help build their skills and confidence, understand their rights, and ultimately empower them to speak out against child marriage and other violations of their human rights.

Mr. Amjad Rabi of UNICEF Nepal presented new UNICEF data that shows that over 700 million women alive in the world today were married as girls and more than 15 million will be married this year alone.  Panelists recognized that there was no silver bullet to ending child marriage and highlighted the need for comprehensive national approaches. For example, UN Women’s John Hendra called for “horizontal investments” across sectors such as health, education, economic development, and justice. They also pointed to the importance of meaningfully engaging all members of communities, including men and boys, in an effort to change gender norms and end gender discrimination, promote gender equality, and empower adolescent girls.

Throughout, the panelists were uncompromising on their collective stance that whether it be culture, tradition, religion, or a perceived lack of information on programs that work, there is no excuse for child marriage and no excuse for inaction by governments and the international community. At this critical moment, when governments are discussing the next UN development agenda, the panel also focused on how the practice not only harms individual girls, but also perpetuates cycles of poverty and undermines the wellbeing of their children, communities, and, ultimately, countries. The panelists were united in their call for a specific target to end child, early, and forced marriage in the post-2015 development agenda.

At the panel discussion, I spoke on behalf of IWHC to reinforce the importance of a clear and uncompromising commitment by governments to end child, early, and forced marriage in the post-2015 development agenda  (skip to 2 hours, 36 minutes of the panel video to see our statement).  We also called for Member States to go further than this, taking the opportunity of the post-2015 development agenda to ensure that adolescent girls’ needs are addressed comprehensively, including by guaranteeing girls’ sexual and reproductive health and rights and access to comprehensive sexuality education.

As we look forward, advocates see this as a stepping stone towards concrete action from Member States on this issue. The General Assembly will next take up a resolution in the fall focused on addressing the links between child, early, and forced marriage and development. Child marriage has become a topic of high-level discussions like never before, but we need more than talk. Let this be the moment that galvanizes real action to end this practice and makes real change in the lives of millions of women and girls. Join us in the #Lead4Girls campaign to insist that government leaders take action.

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