World ‘must speak with one voice’ on girls forced into marriage

Global action is needed to stop girls being robbed of their childhood through forced marriages.

That was the message that came across loud and clear at an event in London on March 4 ahead of International Women's Day.

One in three girls in the developing world will be married by their 18th birthday and one in nine is married by the age of 15, Shockingly, some will be as young as eight.

At the event hosted by Plan UK, Girls Not Brides and the Gender Development Network, the key speech was given by UK International Development Secretary Justine Greening.

She said the campaigning work done towards ending female genital mutilation (FGM) must be extended to early and forced marriage (EFM).

Greening said: “The first step to tackling EFM and FGM is to make sure the international community is speaking with one voice.

“Every year 14 million girls and women are forced to marry early or against their will. When a girl cannot decide for herself when to marry and have children, it’s not just a tragedy for her, it’s a disaster for development.

“It’s time to break the silence of early and forced marriage and recognise that it is exploitation as serious as any other form of child abuse.”

Her call was echoed by Tanya Barron, chief executive of Plan UK, the charity that works with children in the world’s poorest countries to help them build a better future.

She said: “Early and forced marriage drives girls into a cycle of poverty, ill health, illiteracy and powerlessness. It’s most prevalent where poverty is rife and where education and health systems are poor.

“But as well as economic empowerment, early and forced marriage is first and foremost an issue of rights and gender inequality. It is through empowering girls, boys and community leaders to protect and advocate for girls’ rights that we will see an end to this practice.”

Also speaking at the event was Lakshmi Sundaram, global co-ordinator of Girls Not Brides, the partnership of more than 300 civil society organisations in more than 50 countries working to end child marriage.

Girls Not Brides says victims of early and forced marriages are at far greater risk of dangerous complications in pregnancy and childbirth, becoming infected with HIV/AIDS and suffering domestic violence. With little access to education and economic opportunities, they and their families are more likely to live in poverty.

Lakshmi Sundaram said: “Child brides are among the world’s most voiceless and isolated people. We’re pleased to see that DFID (Department for International Development) is helping to bring attention to child marriage, a problem once overlooked on the international stage.

“We know what it will take to end child marriage but change won’t happen overnight. Successful efforts must be grounded in the realities of the places where child marriage is common.

“That is why we need to support the community-based organisations at the forefront of this issue, working with parents and communities to create a better future for their daughters. It is only by working in partnership over the long term that we will be able to reach all those girls who are being held back by child marriage.”

To mark International Women's Day on March 8, A World at School has produced a new video called A New Global Power: Girls with Books. You can watch it here.