Child Marriage: Advancing the Global Agenda

4 June 2004
Author: UNFPA

Good morning. It gives me great pleasure to welcome you to this panel on child marriage.

Before I begin, I would like to say how sad I am that the Global Health Council lost its funding partly because of the participation of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, and the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) in this year’s programme. The United States was a prime mover in the creation of UNFPA during the Administration of former United States President Richard Nixon and has been a major supporter throughout the years.

It is my profound hope that the United States will renew its bipartisan support for the work of UNFPA and IPPF. The fact that UNFPA has been defunded since 2001 is a sad reality, but it has not stopped us from pursuing the implementation of Programme of Action of the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development, adopted by some 179 countries, including the United States.

It is the consensus of Cairo—achieved through open and honest debate—that is the hallmark of multilateralism, which is the basis for the attainment peace and security and the assertion of human rights for all. Issues of sexual and reproductive health are life and death issues for the majority of people in developing countries. And, it is our collective moral obligation to work with women and men, young and old, to meet their needs and to empower them to claim their rights.

Truly, I am pleased and honoured to be here today with global leaders in the health field. On behalf of my colleagues and myself, I would like to thank Dr. Nils Daulaire for his powerful opening statement and for his support to UNFPA and our partners. It is my profound hope that the United States Government will decide to stand with us so that together we can make greater progress for global health.

Of course, we cannot talk about youth and health without talking about sexual and reproductive health. And we cannot move forward—and save lives and lessen suffering—unless we build our work on solid evidence and the free exchange of ideas.

As Dr. Daulaire said, young people are very special. His statement reminded me of remarks I made in April 2002 about young people in the Arab region. Addressing the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, on "Youth and Population in the Middle East: Expanding Opportunity and Hope”, I said:

The young people, by nature, are idealistic and they have very sensitive antennae that pick up messages of inequality and double standards. They see a world where the rich and the powerful, nationally and globally, determine the fate of poor people and deprive them of opportunities to live in an enabling environment that opens the doors of the present and the future for them. The much talked-about negative impact of globalization is what they see and thus they resist it and even fight it. That is why the heads of State of Members of the United Nations spoke, through their Millennium Summit Declaration, of the need to ensure that globalization works for the poor before it benefits the rich. They called for a present and a future that is "free from want" and "free from fear".

I fully agree with Dr. Daulaire – together we must listen to young people and work with them and their communities, and we must focus on their needs, their realities, their human rights and their quest for human dignity.

This is particularly true for married adolescent girls, who have been largely ignored in the development and health policy agenda. They have been neglected because of the perception that their married status ensures them a safe passage to adulthood. But, as we will hear in this panel, nothing could be further from the truth.

Child marriage brings high costs in lost development opportunities, limited life options and poor health.

When girls are married as children, they are robbed of their childhood, very often denied an education, and their dreams—their dreams and hopes for life—are stolen from them before their very eyes. This is a human rights issue because so many of their rights are denied. It is a health issue because child marriage brings great health risks and challenges. And it is a social, cultural and economic issue because, child marriage takes place almost always within the context of poverty and gender inequality.

Yet, many of the world’s current initiatives give little attention to the different needs of boys and girls and the social contexts in which they live. Adolescent health programmes in many countries continue to assume that young people, both male and female, are unmarried and that they are the only group responsible for ‘risky sexual behaviour’ and unwanted pregnancy. The reality, however, is that a significant proportion of girls in developing countries are married, most often at their parents’ behest, and they are subjected to risky sexual behaviour and unwanted pregnancy—and increasingly HIV/AIDS.

Even though age at first marriage is rising, more than 100 million girls in the developing world will be married before the age of 18 during the next decade. This is despite the fact that early marriage is a violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and despite the fact that child marriage is against the law in many countries. This points to the significant difference between legal marriage and customary marriage, which is not recorded, and the need to bridge the gap between gender-biased social practices and equity-based standards and ethics.

Bridging the gap requires long-term dialogue in society among all institutions involved in imparting codes of conduct and the setting of standards. The challenge is to promote a shared understanding and shared values within society, within families, and between men and women, and surely most importantly between boys and girls, of equality and human dignity for all. We must look beyond the condition of adolescent girls to the individual girl as a human being in her own right, and we must encourage others to do the same. There are many benefits to an upbringing that equips adolescents with the shared values of equal opportunity and respect for human dignity, and that taps their talents, promotes their options in life, facilitates their self-fulfillment, and boosts their self-esteem.

I truly believe that if we engage families and communities, and boys and men, we will stand a better chance of increasing the autonomy and freedom of adolescent girls and of reducing the incidence of child marriage.

If we take a close look at the lives of married adolescents, we see that when girls are married they often move to their husbands’ family households and leave behind their own families and friends, and very often their own communities. They become isolated in a very unfamiliar social environment. Their options in life are limited, their self-fulfilment is stifled and their self-esteem suffers. This certainly has implications for their own health and development, and that of their children.

Girls are expected to have children as soon as they are married. As first-time young mothers, they face many risks in their pregnancies including fistula, a condition produced by prolonged labour that leaves girls and women ruptured and damaged, incontinent and often ostracized.

Another risk they face is HIV/AIDS. Although parents may marry girls early as a strategy to safeguard them from HIV/AIDS, the reality is that marriage does not protect against HIV infection. In fact, studies in parts of Kenya and Zambia show that teenage brides are contracting HIV at a faster rate than sexually active single girls in the same locales.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Married girls need our support.

UNFPA is working with the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the Population Council and IPPF on a special project to improve social and economic opportunities for adolescent girls in Ethiopia, Bangladesh and India. The project will produce evidence-based strategies to find feasible alternatives to child marriage. Strategies will include a community assessment in selected regions of the countries, the mobilization of community and opinion leaders towards ending child marriage, and recommendations for actions that can be adapted by countries with a high prevalence of child marriage.

It is clear that married girls’ security can be improved only if their diverse health, education, social and economic needs are recognized as overlapping issues and are addressed holistically and simultaneously across sectors. For example, gainful work can transform the nature of girls’ adolescent experience by providing them with a degree of autonomy, mobility and freedom from traditional gender roles.

Overall, UNFPA seeks to reposition the concern about adolescent girls from a relatively narrow one, focused on their fertility and health, to one that emphasizes the capacities, opportunities, and life skills they need to negotiate their lives as full human beings. New social development policies are needed that recognize the various rights of citizens at all stages of the life cycle, including married adolescents. By positioning the needs of this group of the population in the development paradigm of the fight against poverty, within a human rights context, we can better ensure that resources are allocated from both domestic and external sources to effective programmes.

Overall, it is clear that alternatives to child marriage that we help find will make a big difference in the lives of married adolescents, and in their families and their communities. The health and well-being of adolescents today will have a major impact on the well-being of our world and our common future.

As Nils said, the challenge of young people is to make this world better, more just and healthier. And our challenge is to work with them and support them in doing so.

Thank you.

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