Dispatch

27 September 2013

Empowering Girls as Leaders of Tomorrow

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Farwa Khalil of Pakistan, 17, advocated for ending child marriage at a side event of the 68th UN General Assembly.  © UN Photo / Sarah Fretwell

UNITED NATIONS, New York — Farwa Khalil’s parents could not afford her education costs, so she was pulled out of eighth grade to be married. Luckily, her aunt saved her by paying the expenses, and Farwa is now back in school.

Farwa, who wants to become an engineer, knows that she is amongst the fortunate ones. Some of her former school friends in Pakistan were forced to marry early and no longer have the opportunity to follow their own paths or have control over their own bodies.

Today, Farwa is 17 years old, and has just addressed the United Nations in New York, where she gave voice to those former school friends and millions of young girls beyond.

“Girls aren’t lesser than boys. Girls should have equal rights,” she said to a packed audience on the occasion of a UN General Assembly side event on child marriage.

Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of UNFPA – one of the lead UN agencies working to end child marriage – spoke of the need for activism and work with communities on the ground, alongside the development of legal frameworks. He was joined by a high-level panel of speakers, supporters and activists for adolescents’ rights from around the world.

“Child marriage is a human rights violation,” said Dr. Osotimehin. “In the international system, we must stand up against it.” Touching on the economic development aspect of early marriages, he added: “When you bear children as a child, you perpetuate poverty.”

UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and singer Angelique Kidjo related her story about growing up in Benin, where she witnessed her friends being married off as very young girls because there was no food or money to care for them. Kidjo’s father was a rare example who refused to have his daughters become child brides.

“Girls are not merchandise,” said Kidjo, “they have the right and must know that they have the right to choose their own life.”

The panellists collectively voiced their concern for the thousands of child and adolescent girls, as young as eight years old, who are forced into marriage both in developing and developed countries.

The data has proven that girls who are married too young are more likely to experience complications during childbirth, such as fistulas, and even death in some cases. The numbers also show that when girls are allowed to go to school and have the opportunity to grow up and be part of society, there is a significant increase in the country’s economic growth.

The panellists agreed that while continuing to push for access to education and sexual and reproductive health, continuing international funding, and criminalizing child marriage are essential steps to end the practice, they are not sufficient.

More importantly, the practice of child brides should no longer be accepted as a cultural, religious or traditional “norm.”

“Traditions were made by people and they can be changed by people too,” said Minister Inga Marte Thorkildsen of Norway’s Ministry of Children, Equality and Social Inclusion.

The “Too Young To Wed: Empowering Girls as Leaders of Tomorrow” UN General Assembly side event was co-organized by the Permanent Missions of Canada, Ghana and the Netherlands to the United Nations, UNFPA and UNICEF, in collaboration with Plan International.