|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
Press Conference by United Nations Population Fund
on Launch of Report on Ending Childhood Marriage
Officials launching a United Nations report on very young marriages around the world this morning said it represented a “clarion call” to end a practice that every day cut short the childhoods of 37,000 girls, some as young as 5 years old, ending their education, endangering their health and entering them into a life of drudgery.
“This is something we want to end. It is viciously cruel,” Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Chair of the Elders group of eminent public figures, declared as he and Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) launched the report, Marrying too Young: End Child Marriage, at a press conference that coincided with several special events at Headquarters marking the first International Day of the Girl Child.
Calling for an end to child marriage by 2030, Mr. Tutu held up the report’s cover, which pictured a small girl next to an obviously older husband and asked “How would you feel if this was your younger sister? How would you feel if this was your daughter? This is a baby!”
Also at the launch of the report, which describes the prevalence of the practice in developing countries and warns of an increase if current trends continued, was Ghaicha Salamatou Issoufa, a young woman from Niger, who shared her personal story of avoiding child marriage. Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, also attended the conference and made comments.
Mr. Osotimehin said that even as he spoke, somewhere in the world a girl was having her childhood abruptly ended — getting married most probably to an older man whom she hardly knew and getting pregnant before her body was ready.
Child marriage, he explained, was a formal union in which one or both partners were under the age of 18, but was frequently much younger, and involved girls in greater numbers than boys, although boys too were affected. He called it a human rights violation that denied a girl of her childhood, disrupted her education, limited her opportunities, increased her risk of abuse and jeopardized her health.
Citing figures from the report that he said painted a “deeply troubling picture”, he said that if present trends continued, 142 million girls would be married by their eighteenth birthday in the next decade, 50 million of them under 15 years old, averaging 14.2 million per year. By 2030, if nothing was done to end the practice, the yearly figure would rise to 15.1 million.
Girls who were poor were at greatest risk, he said, with the rates skyrocketing for girls without access to education. “Girls as young as 5 or 6 can be married,” he stressed.
Recommendations on ending the practice, he said, included the enactment of national laws raising the legal age of marriage to 18, identifying and targeting geographic “hot spots” – areas with the highest number of girls at risk - improving equal access to quality education, mobilizing communities to end the practice, addressing root causes and empowering girls.
In such efforts, he said, UNFPA was committed to working with Governments and civil society partners. He pointed to yesterday’s announcement by the agency of a new initiative that would invest an additional $20 million over the next five years to systematically target the most marginalized adolescent girls in 12 countries with high rates of child marriage, to both assist girls already married and help end a practice he called “an appalling violation of human rights”.
Archbishop Tutu, who is also a founder of the organization Girls Not Brides, hailed the celebration of the International Day and said that UNFPA’s report made the case for ending child marriage even more urgent. He pledged that his commitment to ending it would be equal to the commitment he had made to fight against apartheid. “Please let us work toward the goal of eradicating this practice by 2030,” he said, adding “Why not? We’ve ended vicious things, like apartheid.”
Ms. Salamatou Issoufa said that in 2005, she was a young girl when her parents had said that she must marry a 50-year-old man who already had other wives and children. She was strongly against it; she had only one year to go to get a secondary diploma. Fortunately, she was able to enlist the aid of her older brother, who, with the help of an area health management committee, was able to convince her parents to allow her to stay out of the marriage and continue school. She obtained her diploma one year later and then studied to become a midwife with the support of UNFPA.
In 2010 she got her State diploma and went back to her village to serve there as a midwife for six months. She has since become a Government midwife. She felt herself “very lucky indeed”, particularly in comparison with a cousin who had to marry as a child and now spent all day working, doing chores and taking care of three children. “She’s really a slave,” she said, calling for the end to child marriage so that girls could have the same chance she had.
Finally, Ms. Robinson, also celebrating the advent of the International Day, said that in order to end child marriage by 2030, the issue must be fully integrated into the work to achieve the Millennium Development Goals by 2015 and also into the development framework that succeeded the Goals.
In answer to correspondents’ questions, the panellists expressed strong condemnation of the recent shooting of 14-year-old Malala Yousufzai, who had been a crusader for girls’ education in Pakistan. Mr. Tutu noted that the tragedy had highlighted the plight of young girls. “Maybe in a kind of ghastly kind of way, they have helped to raise awareness of this issue.”
On entrenched cultural practices, Mr. Osotimehin said that cultures were not monolithic; “cultures are made up of people” and it was important to identify agents of change in each. Yet, Ms. Robinson noted that she did not like to use the word “culture” in terms of harmful practices. “It’s tradition, it’s man-made - and I use the term man-made intentionally. The people involved can change it, just like in Ireland disappointment in having a girl had ended in the course of a generation.” To further questions on changing attitudes, the panel emphasized the importance of education and advocacy that used the media well.
On the role of religion in continuing child marriage or in ending the practice, Mr. Tutu said that religion could be used for good or ill, expressing hope for positive change because “some of us in the Church have just made the huge scientific discovery that women are human beings.”
Finally, asked to continue her story, Ms. Salamatou Issoufa said that after she got her diploma she met a man, married him and had a child who was now almost 4 years old.
* *** *