The drumbeat to end child marriage worldwide continues to grow louder. Today, the loudest drum came from Geneva, where, for the third time, countries adopted a resolution calling for the end of child, early, and forced marriage at the Human Rights Council (HRC). This time, the resolution concentrated on specific ways to end the practice in humanitarian settings.
Through research from UNFPA and others, we know that child marriage increases in times of conflict and disaster. With 22 million refugees and over 65 million people forcibly displaced in the world because of multiple protracted humanitarian crises, such as conflict in Syria and drought in the Sahel, more girls than ever are at risk. This resolution could not be more timely.
IWHC was in Geneva to monitor and assist in the negotiations, which were led by the Netherlands and Sierra Leone on behalf of a core group of countries from across the globe. These countries, along with Canada, Zambia, and Italy, have been at the forefront of pushing for UN resolutions to end child marriage. Ultimately, 75 countries showed their support for ending child marriage by cosponsoring the resolution before it was adopted by consensus. This strong support indicates the seriousness with which countries are working to eliminate harmful practices like child marriage, a target of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Resolutions like this provide a roadmap for countries. In this case, the resolution lays out a number of key provisions to ensure that responses to child marriage in humanitarian settings are strong and based on the most up-to-date evidence.
The resolution emphasizes that sexual and reproductive health care is a basic need in humanitarian settings. While this has been acknowledged in other resolutions, this is the first time that this recommendation has been made in the context of preventing and responding to child marriage in humanitarian settings. Also for the first time countries agreed that access to justice and civil registration and vital statistics must continue to be priorities in humanitarian settings, particularly as they are critical for girls at risk of marriage or those who have already been married off. Civil registration and vital statistics, such as birth registration, can be one of the only ways girls can show that they are not old enough to marry legally, thereby providing them with a level of protection in otherwise precarious situations.
Given the protracted nature of many of today’s conflicts and humanitarian settings, the resolution takes a few other critical steps forward. First, it acknowledges that, even in humanitarian settings, gender inequality is the root cause of child marriage. It emphasizes that humanitarian agencies, policymakers, and those working on the ground should strive to achieve gender equality through education on human rights, relationships, power dynamics, and sexual and reproductive health (also known as comprehensive sexuality education), and other means. This will necessarily require the expertise of both humanitarian and development experts, as acknowledged in the resolution. Furthermore, the resolution notes that the misconception that marriage provides protection to girls furthers the practice, as does the stigma of pregnancy outside of marriage. Recognizing this helps on two fronts: first, it will push countries and those in the development and humanitarian field to counter these beliefs, discrediting protection myths and working to undo the stigma associated with unwed pregnancy. Second, it will ensure that humanitarian crises cannot be used as an excuse to marry off girls for any reason.
IWHC commends the hard work of the Netherlands and Sierra Leone in authoring and shepherding this resolution through, despite often tense and difficult negotiations. Multiple countries, including Russia and Egypt, tried to argue that traditional culture should hold sway, calling into question the right of women and girls to their autonomy and trying to preserve the patriarchal norms that keep women and girls from determining their own futures. Progressive countries defeated these efforts and instead prioritized the human rights and lives of women and girls. This resolution provides us with a necessary step forward as we continue to establish global norms and standards to end the practice once and for all.