Presentation by : Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda
World YWCA General Secretary & AU Goodwill Ambassador for Campaign to End Child Marriage
68th United Nations General Assembly Panel Session, 5 September, 2014, NY
Her-story is the story of 39,000 of our girls married off each day, the story of our young girls who are victims of crime, rape, sexual abuse and abduction. It’s the story of the 14 million victims a year who survive from multiple forms of violations of their rights, and it is a story of 700 million women who have been married before the age of 18 (UNICEF, 2014).
The girl – now a woman – is Mereso Kiluso.
At age 14, she was taken out of her school, in rural Arusha in Tanzania, to marry a polygamous 70-year-old man. By the age of age 29, she had five children, surviving domestic violence and extreme poverty. She tried to leave the husband, and her family insisted she stay in that marriage because they had received a bride price for her marriage. Mereso had no birth certificates, and always swallowed the indignities surrounding her lack of registered identity every time she sought service, be it health, legal or social. She tried to get a ticket to come to New York three years ago for the UN CSW session, but she was unable to come, because she could not get a passport without a birth certificate; naturally you do not get a visa without a passport. When, just a week or so before the meeting, she had to get her visa, she was requested to make her application online, and because she could not read or write or type, she had to find someone to assist. Still because she had never travelled, never had a job and nothing to show that she had means; she could not meet the visa requirements. She was excluded as a citizen from her multiple legal rights.
Today, Mereso has formed a local YWCA, which is providing safe spaces to other girls to share their experiences, to help girls remain in school while fighting child marriage. More importantly, she and her fellow YWCA members rear goats, for economic empowerment is crucial. She is a community leader, and an entrepreneur.
Mereso’s story is my own mother’s story and the story of her children. It is the story of my own life, and yes, my mother Rozaria also had to farm and sell vegetables at the market to raise the 11 of us. Yet she was always a leader, a change agent, seeking another life for girls, and not living just as a victim of an unacceptable social practice.
What is driving child marriage?
First, let me start by rejecting the term “marriage”, for the practice we are talking about is nothing more than a crime, and gross violation of many rights. It is abuse and it is often rape. By calling it marriage, we are sanitising, and giving a cloak of legality, with social and moral acceptability, to this crime and harmful practice. This is child sexual abuse and exploitation.
Child marriage is a confluence of many factors, which include the following:
- Extreme and degrading levels of household poverty, which often leave families and girls themselves seeing marriage as an option for survival, or as a social protection mechanism and a source of livelihood. Forced marriage can really be seen as a modern form of slavery, and therefore child marriage is often a class issue.
- Embedded patriarchal and social attitudes that continue to see girls and women as being of lesser value in society. These attitudes often result in someone making a decision for a girl on the most private and intimate issues, such as a decision about whom she should have sex with, raise a family with, and live side by side with for the rest of her life. It is therefore an issue of gender discrimination and disempowerment of girls, their mothers, aunts, grandmothers and peers.
- Lack of access to affordable, quality services and opportunities for girls. Girls often lack a whole range of options: from education to health care and age-appropriate sexuality education, and from shelters to legal and social services and economic opportunity. This lack is also an indicator of support missing within a girl’s basic unit of society, the family.
- The frequent misuse or abuse of cultures and traditions. I lead a global faith-based organisation, the World YWCA, and I have yet to see in its scriptures where it is written “thou shall marry thy under-aged daughter”. I am a Zimbabwean, born and bred in the village, imbued in our traditions and cultures. Culture and faith is often used and abused to cloak an unacceptable criminal behaviour, which should simply be seen as such.
- Lastly, a limited and one-sided view and endorsement of early child or forced marriage – a view that looks only at the girls involved, and not the male perpetrators. This view is driven also by the fact that any interventions are usually focused on the girls involved. The question has not been sufficiently asked about the 39,000 men who are each day marrying under-aged girls. They are a faceless and nameless critical mass of people committing crimes – men who are often protected by patriarchy. Also, the reach of the justice system is still very low. We need men to learn and to be held responsible: to value, respect and uphold the dignity of their daughters, their sisters, mothers and female family members.
Engaging traditions and culture
Culture does not just refer to traditions and practices; it also refers to shared values and norms in society. Thus civilized culture includes human rights standards that member states have signed on to. It’s important to acknowledge that child marriage is a negative global phenomenon and is not confined to certain regions or countries. Although the UNFPA data (Too Young to Wed) shows the regions where the practice is most prevalent than in others, such as in Africa and in South Asia.
Cultures and traditions are made by us, the people. Therefore it is within the power of the people to change any cultures and traditions that are retrogressive, offensive to the sensitivities of its people and those which simply undermine basic core values. In many traditions and culture, there is reverence to dignity, to the woman who gives life to humanity, who nurtures the earth and raises the name of her people into perpetuity. Abuse of girls therefore in any form of marriage simply goes against the deeply held values of people. This is why I call on a strong protection of positive culture, so that it’s not abused by those who want to hide behind culture in order to explain or justify child marriage.
The key to the social transformation on issues of culture, faith and tradition is essentially to engage, involve and strategically bring on board special supportive institutions to be at the centre of driving such change. It is not enough though to simply seek to change the perspective of traditional or cultural leaders, since it is equally essential to equip young people and women to own their culture so that they can question, change and transform negative practices. Women and young people should not just be seen as victims and consumers of culture, but should essentially be the resource and voice to bring forth the changes we are looking for.
At the global level, the Member States adopted a universal culture, that of human rights. These values are enshrined in the UN Charter and Declaration on Human Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, among others. Various regions have also adopted similar standards on human rights such as the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, and the Maputo Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa. These instruments establishes the global culture where the legal age of consent to child marriage, is clear, ie 18 years. Many countries however, even though they are signatory to these international instruments, have defined the age of sexual consent and the age of marriage as lower than the legal age of majority. This contradiction and conflict of laws creates greater vulnerability for girls who are then denied full legal protection according to international laws. In essence, culture and faith should uphold human rights of girls and women all the time and everywhere.
Effective approaches to end child marriage
The African Union, by launching its two-year campaign towards ending child marriage, is sending a clear message that we need the highest levels of political will, commitment to resources, and actions which have a large scale impact, at both the national and local level.
The AU campaign is focusing on ten countries with the highest prevalence of child marriage and those with some of the best practices being used to end or strive to end such forced unions. An effective approach involves concentrated and targeted intervention into those communities and with those girls that are highly at risk. It’s not enough to simply work for a generalised awareness of the damage and deprivation; it’s all about impact.
Linking national plans, strategies or approaches with other existing initiatives is also crucial. For instance, in Africa, we have the CARMMA Campaign focusing on reducing maternal mortality and the campaign to end FGM. Knowing that there are multiple social and economic causes that underlie and accompany child marriage is essential. It is therefore imperative that each sector and each ministry involved knows of all other efforts. Monitoring and evaluation are also badly needed. It is crucial that nations keep records of the age of marriage of its citizens, both as a vital statistic for national planning and as a protective record for its citizens and particularly girls or women. Also that such records are periodically tracked either through the DHS or other monitoring tools. We have too many words, too many baskets of commitments, and often very little or very slow implementation. Data collection, a national score card, community monitoring and civil society dialogues are all powerful tools. Parliaments must continue to track budget allocations and progress within their oversight role.
It’s all about pulling together collective impactful work by a diverse range of partners. I really want to acknowledge the very concrete commitments and robust work engagement of UN agencies working with the AU on this issue, especially UNFPA and UNICEF, and civil society networks such as World YWCA, Girls Not Brides, and Plan International among many others. It’s encouraging and inspiring to see a strong commitment emerging from a number of governments such as Zambia, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Burkina Faso and Ghana as well as Canada and the UK and countless others in supporting the continental effort. Participating at the recent SADC People’s Summit and the official meetings, and the Girls Summit in London, it was clear to me that we have a big social movement unleashed, with many regional, national and community initiatives. This is crucial so that the issue of child marriage is not just dealt with from a technocratic position, but as a political issue, as we continue to express moral outrage at this criminal practice.
It’s also important that we have the media as a strategic sector, actor and player in this effort. It’s critical that media should play a positive role in all its diversity, ranging from traditional media, which includes folklore and storytelling, to social media. Radio, television and print drama – all have to tell the story, and more importantly, shift the narrative. It’s essential to tell success stories, and not just the “victim story.” It’s also important to name the perpetrators and not just the violated. We also must show the structural changes happening in various ways: by a review of laws and their impact; a listing of countries with programmes for re-entry or education for the adolescent mother; stories of how registration of vital statistics such as birth and marriage impacts the protection of girls, and information on how to access justice. Finally, there needs to be public information on existing economic opportunities and empowerment for girls and all the multiple dimensions of health including mental health that are associated with this issue.
Lastly, it’s about resources. We need to ensure that there are enough resources reaching communities that are delivering programmes at the local level. Even in instances where pledges or resources have been made available, the windows are narrow, complex and confounding for local organisations. These groups need doors to access strategic partnerships and to be trusted in ways so that they have quality and predictable support for the work they are doing. At the same time, where some of these actions do not really require funding, they require a shift in attitude, such as simply respecting women and girls!
On the Post 2015 Agenda:
Proposed goal 5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
5.3 Eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilations
Child marriage is a human rights issue and a development issue. It is more than just a harmful practice. It is that proxy indicator that we have been searching for that is often at the root of other multiple issues affecting girls, such as their lack of education, health, safety and security, as well as lost economic opportunities and a lack of access to services. Child Marriage is at the core of all the issues that have been so well documented by girls themselves in the “Girls Declaration” and which hundreds and hundreds of young people have commented on in multiple consultations about the post 2015 agenda. I there challenge us all to listen to the voices of the girls and young women, a call to governments for a solid commitment to end child and forced marriage as articulated in our World YWCA report, “The Future Young Women Want”.
Therefore, I strongly recommend that the issue of child marriage be strengthened and articulated in a revision, building on the current draft of the Post 2015 agenda, with the following specific suggestions:
- The current language positions the issue of child marriage, within the “harmful practice” framework. This calls for review so that it’s articulated as a development issue.
- Child marriage as currently stated, is merely ONE of the examples of a “harmful practice” to be addressed. This therefore does not give a clear direct commitment that there must be greater political will, resource allocation and investments, shifts in service provision as well as in redefining norms. It is not stated as an outcome for which member states will hold themselves accountable to deliver on.
- If there is a clearly stated goal of eliminating child and forced child marriage, then the post 2015 agenda could make the linkage to how investments in health, education, economic and sustainable development would make a needed global impact in breaking the cycle of poverty and unleashing the human resource potential of our nations.
- Elimination of child marriage should be a stand-alone target, with strong language, defined in measurable terms, is daring, bold statement, and a signal of commitment to addressing some of the root causes of gender inequalities and structural causes of disempowerment of women and girls. Many of us have been reviewing ICPD and are in the middle of reviewing the 20 years of commitment made for girls during the Beijing conference on women in 1995, and we see the post 2015 agenda as a moment of accountability to girls.
There are times when as governments and as a people we have to be daring, and simply say that we can have this goal to end child marriage within a single generation. It is achievable, it is doable, and it is within our means. Each one of us acting in governments, in organisations and as individuals can help make that happen. But it takes an act of daring and bold leadership, breaking out of the norm to name and rally the world to a simple and yet most profound and transforming action.
Africa has spoken. We need a prosperous Africa which is at peace with itself. We cannot prosper nor be at peace if girls who will comprise half the population of every nation, with the human potential to self-perpetuate, are abused, bruised and robbed of opportunities in life for themselves, their children and their families. The girls and women have spoken.
The GA resolutions and the Human Rights Council efforts, as well as this meeting today, give us hope that at last we can achieve what is needed. We will say YES if we see a stronger, clearly resourced commitment to ending child marriage in the post 2015 agenda.
Meanwhile, for us in the YWCA and the women’s networks, we will remain on our feet – preventing damage where we can – while raising awareness, providing protection, supporting adolescent mothers, demanding justice and creating safe spaces for girls as they hope to become women with full human rights and the dignity they deserve