Too Young to Wed
The United Nations Human Rights Council hosted a panel debate on March 3rd, 2014 called “Too Young to Wed” at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.
The keynote speakers and panel discussed child marriage as a human rights violation, the devastating impact it has on girls, and the possible solutions for the future. The exhibition to accompany the discussion was brought by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and captured the stories of child brides from across the globe. The child marriage rate in developing countries is 34 percent, with girls who are less educated, living in rural and poor areas, more at risk.
Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, explained how child marriage is caused by unequal power structures in society and stifles the economic and political opportunities available to women. It is also a violation of human rights because it conflicts with women’s freedom of choice and reproductive rights. Mireya Agüero, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Honduras, called for ending the vicious cycle of gender inequality and poverty that leads to child marriages.
Enerstrida Mirriam Michelo, who is a former child bride and a human rights activist in Zambia, shared her experiences of being forced out of school as a teenager to get married, and being beaten in a confined home after refusing. At the end of the session, Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of the UN Population Fund, offered Michelo a scholarship to attend university, proving the significance of education in bettering lives.
Hooria Mashhour, Minister of Human Rights in Yemen, explained the success of the World Food Program which gives food to families who are continuing to keep their children in school. This development supports GWI’s emphasis on education; girls who attend school will find better social and economic opportunities and be less likely to become child brides.
Lynne Yelich, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs in Canada, discussed the importance of education in also providing economic opportunities. She stated that girls can have between 15 to 25 percent increase in their incomes for every year they stay in school. Agüero explained that although there is a lower enrollment of girls in primary schools than boys, there are more girls enrolled in university than boys. This shows that if governments empower girls from an early start, there can be improvements in women’s education and a decrease in child marriages.
The speakers offered various national and international solutions to the problem. They unanimously agreed on the importance of strengthening the legal framework, such as having a provision of a minimum age for marriage in more countries. It is necessary to empower the civil society to hold the governments accountable and make sure laws are not just enacted, but also implemented.
Pillay urged for victims of child marriage to be included in the discussion in resolutions, as well as civil society and the government. Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of the UN Population Fund, recommended that poverty be addressed, as poverty is the driver behind many of these issues, seen when women are forced to stay at home to work instead of attending school. He also called for better access to technology, since young girls can use electronic devices to raise their concerns to their peers. For example, some girls have sent texts explaining their desire to take their parents to court.
Her Royal Highness Mabel van Oranje, Chair of Advisory Committee of Girls Not Brides, spoke of the need for better alternatives to marriage, such as a quality primary and secondary education. Osotimehin added that the critical life skills gained through education can allow women to participate in their communities and help build a better foundation. Oranje also discussed the importance of empowering girls by educating them on their legal rights. Agüero agreed and said only those who know their human rights can put them into practice. This solution is relevant to GWI’s mission of girls applying their education to empower themselves in their private and public lives.
Human Rights Council