On the margins of the 63rd session of the Commission on the Status of Women, a high-level side event on “Accelerating the elimination of harmful practices to reap the demographic dividend in Africa” convened Member States, civil society, youth and development partners to discuss decisive measures to eliminate child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) across the continent.
Often seen as traditional and cultural practices, female genital mutilation, and child, early and forced marriages are persisting human rights issues that affect women and girls in every region of the world. One in every five girls is married before reaching age 18, and more than 200 million women and girls alive today have been cut in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, where FGM is most common. According to recent UNFPA data, as many as 68 million girls globally may be at risk of FGM by 2030.
United Nation Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka stressed joint programming and the need to address poverty and bolster women’s economic empowerment. UN Women has worked with UNFPA and UNICEF to develop policy guidance and a training module on gender equality and female genital mutilation, which can be used by development practitioners working toward eliminating FGM in places where it’s most prevalent.
UN Women is also partnering with UNICEF and UNFPA in the second phase of the Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage.
According to Mlambo-Ngeuka, “Our particular interest is to support women’s economic empowerment so that parents don’t marry off children because they think that it means economic security for them; we can find ways of making them sufficiently economically empowered that they do not have to depend on this.”
The EU-UN Spotlight Initiative, a multi-year partnership between the European Union and the United Nations, which focuses on ending harmful practices and promoting sexual and reproductive health in its programming in Africa, is another promising initiative that’s strengthening the collaboration among relevant actors, including national governments.
“We see this as a human rights issue, but also as an economic issue,” said Darren Welch, Director of Policy of the Department for International Development of the United Kingdom. At the individual level, child marriage leads to girls dropping out of school and in one study, early marriage was estimated to lead to the drop of nine per cent of lifetime earnings, something that economies cannot afford.”
Jaha Dukureh, UN Women Regional Goodwill Ambassador for Africa and a survivor-activist, supports UN Women’s advocacy to end FGM and child marriage in Africa, with a special focus on mobilizing youth. She pointed out that when it comes to ending FGM and child marriage, the people that sit at the table to discuss these issues are usually not young and have not been through the ordeal.
Dukureh said “They are talking about us and for us, and we become a footnote in their research.But I think we have changed that in the last five years,” “The only way we are going to achieve change is by allowing young people [to engage and participate], especially within the continent of Africa. It is about how we elevate their voices and not suppress them. All we are asking for is to be given a seat at the table, and not just because we are young so that you can check that box, but because you believe that we can make a difference.”
In an effort to accelerate progress, the Big Sisters Movement under the NGO Safe Hands for Girls, founded by Dukureh, is organizing an African Leadership Summit on Female Genital Mutilation and Child Marriage, in Dakar, Senegal planned for later this year. The Summit, first of its kind, aims to mobilize a powerful and broad alliance of African Heads of State, civil society leaders, youth, religious and customary leaders, media and other influencers to take bold and decisive actions to ban FGM and dedicate specific budget allocations to implement existing laws and policies.
Petrider Paul, member of the African Union Youth Advisory Council, also stressed the importance of engaging youth in efforts to change behaviours. “It is a pity we do not invest in young people in a more sustainable way,” “These are the future parents, the future government leaders, these are the future fathers. If young people [are] able to change the mindset of [other] young people and be the voice for the voiceless, it’s something that can…end child marriage and FGM.”
UNFPA’s Executive Director, Dr. Natalia Kanem, highlighting the importance of comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services, education and information that is age-appropriate and in a language that girls can understand. This information needs to reach not just girls, but their brothers, fathers and their communities.
“Girls have to be given a voice to claim these rights.”. “That girl who is running for her life from FGM is my hero. Girls who are defending their sisters against the practice – my hat’s off to them.
Making sure that youth are leading the way forward is at the heart of UN Women’s social mobilization efforts to commemorate the 25thanniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the blueprint for women’s rights worldwide.
Mlambo-Ngeuka is Executive Director, United Nations Women.