1 March 2010 The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is supporting a new anti-child marriage movement in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal, where nearly half of all girls become child brides and one-third become teenage mothers even though the legal marriage age is 18.
“We need to have a zero-tolerance policy towards child marriage, so that every child, boy and girl, has the opportunity to live their childhood and gain an education.” said Karin Hulshof, UNICEF India Representative.
Some 225 children launched the movement – called “Amar Shaishab Amar Adhikar” (My Childhood, My Right) – last week at a meeting jointly hosted by the UNICEF office in Kolkata (Calcutta) and the Department of Women and Child Development and Social Welfare, Government of West Bengal.
“Today is a historic day for our children because they have decided to change the status quo and demand for what is rightfully theirs,” said Biswanath Choudhury, Minister in Charge of the Department of Women and Child Development and Social Welfare, Government of West Bengal.
He added that a child bride is “more vulnerable to poverty, hunger, abuse, disease and maternal mortality – a legacy that may well be passed on to her own children.”
As part of the launch, children released a manifesto they developed as a first call for action. The manifesto is the first time views of children have been gathered on child marriage and translated into tangible actions for parents, teachers and communities.
In West Bengal, UNICEF efforts to prevent early marriages have included implementing a village-level monitoring system to track child marriages and support for a state consultation on child marriage.
“Rights can be declared and policies formulated, but unless laws are actually implemented, they will have little effect. All our efforts as partners are meaningless if the lives of disadvantaged, vulnerable children, their families and communities are not improved,” said Ms. Hulshof.
UNICEF had released a report in October of last year – Progress for Children: A Report Card on Child Protection – calling for improved child protection systems and for greater promotion of social change to prevent actions against children, such as child marriage.
“A society cannot thrive if its youngest members are forced into early marriage, abused as sex workers or denied their basic rights,” UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman had said at the report launch.
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