To #EndHIV4Her: Tackle Child Marriage

To say that child marriage and HIV among adolescents are linked feels a lot like stating the obvious. But I learned today, at Day 3 of the 2016 International AIDS Conference, there is very little formal knowledge to back that claim up.

The overarching message from this morning’s discussion was a simple one; it is really difficult, if not totally impossible, to tackle HIV unless you tackle child marriage. On the one hand, girls and young women make up approximately two out of every 3 new HIV infections among people aged 10-24 years. On the other, 15 million girls per year are married before they turn 18. Two global problems of colossal scale with two sets of similar causes; gender inequality, poverty, rigid social norms, lack of education, inaccessible health information and services. And yet until recently, the relationship between the two has remained pretty much ignored. It was even suggested at one point that this session may well be a historic moment – recognition at last of their interwoven nature.

Girls Not Brides, who hosted the panel, have created a fact sheet explaining 5 reasons why child brides are more likely to be infected with HIV than their unmarried peers. It also suggests 3 things that need to be done in order to end child marriage, and therefore make progress in tackling HIV. It’s comprehensive and clear, and you can read it here.

 The facts and statistics are, of course, vital. But it was the stories of, and comments from, individuals this morning that seemed most powerful and most useful for advocates wondering how best to talk about the link between child marriage and HIV in girls and young women.

One of the panel members was Julia Omondi, a young woman representing Kenyan NGO Family Health Options Kenya. She spoke openly and honestly about real people from her community in a way that powerfully illustrated her arguments for action.

Julia used this story to stress the importance of including already-respected religious leaders in community advocacy and education:

“Where I live, there’s actually a pastor who preaches to the community against child marriage. And because of him, change is happening. Teachers in one school have now said that they don’t want older men hanging around outside the school, as they are luring girls into child marriage. The teachers are taking a stand because the know the pastor. So religious leaders have to be brought in too, they have an important part to play.”

To emphasize the need for education that reaches beyond basic primary education, Julia shared a story of a friend from secondary school. This friend, upon returning to the village she grew up in during school holidays, found that all of her friends had been married. She was the only one from her friendship group who remained un-married, and she was also the only one who had progressed into secondary education.

By grounding arguments in people’s real lives, Julia put forward a case for tackling adolescent HIV by simultaneously tackling child marriage that seemed difficult to contest. So, while more facts and figures are necessary and important, it’s ultimately stories, not statistics, that help us to piece together our view of the world.

Was this a historic moment? It may well prove to be. But only if more people now talk about the ways that child marriage and HIV exist in tandem, and share more stories that humanize the numbers and percentages the way Julia Omondi did today.

More voices are louder and more stories mean a stronger narrative that is more difficult to ignore. And the increased research, the prioritization of adolescent girls in HIV programming, the multi-sectoral national initiatives, the resources needed to empower girls, all of these are changes that will happen when the voices and the stories and the narrative become impossible to ignore.

Cover Photo Credit: Aresenie Coseac, Flickr Creative Commons 

Girls’ Globe is present at the 2016 International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa (17-22nd of July). Follow our team on social media @GirlsGlobe, @FHI360@JNJGlobalHealth and by using the hashtag #EndHIV4Her for inspiring blog posts, interviews and updates! To sign up for the daily In Focus Newsletter visit crowd360.org/aids2016/.

 

 

Ending Child Marriage and FGM Saves Lives and Money

This post is co-written by: Rachel, Policy Associate and Salma, Egypt Fellow

Around the world, women’s and girls’ value as human beings is all too often based largely upon their sexuality, rather than their personal and societal contributions.

Disproportionately, girls around the world are pulled out of school, restricted in terms of where and how they can get around and with who whom they are allowed to speak. Many are forced into unwanted marriages. One of the most profound ways girls are affected is they’re often forced to undergo what is known as Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C). FGM/C is a type of surgery performed on young girls – in a misguided effort – to “preserve their purity.”

This surgery can cause irreparable harm to girls’ health and, in some cases, can be deadly. Take, for example, Sohier Al-Batea, a 13-year old Egyptian girl, who died in 2013 after a trained and licensed medical doctor cut away parts of her external genitalia as part of a FGM/C surgery.

Though universally considered a human rights violation, FGM/C is all too common throughout the world and can be found in Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia. In fact, the United Nations (UN) estimates that, globally, 15 million girls will experience this harmful practice by 2030. When a girl’s sexuality is tied to both her and her family’s honor, removing pieces of her body that are tied to her sexuality are seen as measures that will both protect her and prepare her for marriage. Medical professionals, however, have said that the practice has no health benefits but rather causes immediate and long-term, acute and chronic physical consequences.

Although there are laws making the practice illegal in most, if not all, of the countries where FGM/C is prevalent, laws alone are not enough. Often, social attitudes view FGM/C as necessary to prevent girls from having and acting upon sexual desires. These views further  encourage parents to cut their daughters, and stigmatizes families who do not. A case in point: the 2014 Egyptian Demographic Health Survey (DHS) showed more than 50 percent of Egyptian women favor FGM/C, viewing it as aligning with their cultural and religious traditions. If we are to end this practice, minds must change along with the proper implementation of laws.

Another harmful practice that robs girls of rights and opportunities, though illegal in most countries, is child marriage, which claims 28 girls every minute. More than 700 million women alive today were married as children, and one in three of them were married before they turned 15. Frequently married to men significantly older than them, child brides experience a lack of control over their own lives, and often experience physical, sexual, and emotional violence at the hands of their husbands and in-laws. Girls who marry young are more likely to become pregnant earlier, die in childbirth, have more children, have those children die before they turn five, see an end to their own education, and experience extreme social isolation.

The practices of FGM/C and child marriage are both tied to traditional norms that value girls more as wives and mothers than as girls in their own right. It’s important to note that not all child brides undergo FGM/C, and not all girls who are cut end up marrying before they turn 18. However, both processes are often linked as girls are often cut in preparation for marriage. Both practices stem from the same discriminatory norms and attitudes regarding female sex. It is clear laws and policies alone are not sufficient to end these harmful, and sometimes deadly, practices. Ending both practices would have enormous social, health, and economic impacts on developing nations. Most importantly, it would mean that girls like Sohier would not have to die, and could instead experience a healthy adolescence that will allow her to safely transition to adulthood.

In Egypt, where Sohier Al-Batea died, FGM/C is illegal but remains widespread, and has become medicalized. With licensed doctors performing the procedure, many parents feel safe when putting their daughter under the knife. According to the Population Reference Bureau (PRB), an estimated 100-140 million women have undergone FGM/C worldwide. UNICEF reports that one in five of those who have undergone FGM/C lives in Egypt, and around 91 percent of the female Egyptian population have experienced some form of cutting.

Al-Batea’s death sparked widespread condemnation, particularly from Egyptian children’s and women’s right advocates. Despite this condemnation, both the doctor and Al-Batea’s family were acquitted of criminal charges, even though the anti-FGM/C law has been on the books since 2008. Laws without enforcement, advocates said, meant little.

However, in a landmark conviction in 2015, Al-Batea’s doctor was sentenced to two years in prison, and his clinic was suspended for a year. Her father was punished with three months of house arrest for ordering the procedure. As the first act of enforcing the anti-FGM/C law in Egypt, these punishments were seen as a positive step. Sadly, despite the conviction and fine, the doctor who killed Al-Batea was recently found to not only be out of jail, but still performing FGM/C procedures. Clearly enforcement efforts in Egypt are not sending a very strong message, even to the one man who was convicted of violating the law. Moreover, advocates fear that enforcing policy without combining such efforts with campaigns to change attitudes and norms will drive the practice underground, and will actually increase the number of girls whose lives are at risk from the practice.

When girls’ value is seen by communities exclusively as her potential as a wife and mother, and not for her own unique rights and contributions to society beyond these roles, FGM/C and child marriage are allowed to flourish. As advocates to empower adolescent girls, we cannot accept this fate for girls around the world. When allowed and encouraged to transition safely to adulthood, girls can contribute to the social and economic welfare of countries in a big way.

Combatting social, moral and religious norms can be incredibly tough, but is not impossible. The first-ever Girl Summit in 2014 drew strong pledges to end both FGM/C and child marriage. Now more than a year later, the global community is watching to make sure that countries are held accountable to their commitments to end child marriage and FGM/C. The hope is that girls are in control of their own sexuality, and they are seen as more than the potential wives and mothers they may become, but as the adolescents they currently are.

Cover photo credit: Skhakirov, Flickr Creative Commons

SDG 5: An Invitation to Co-Create An Equal World for Women and Girls

In the month of September, world leaders, private sector leaders, civil society organizations, religious groups and young people gathered at the United Nations to adopt a new sustainable development agenda. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a set of 17 global goals that provide renewed hope and a road map that will guide the international community on a path towards shared prosperity, improved lives and a better planet for all. Specifically on women and girls, the 2030 agenda seeks to realize the human rights of all, to achieve gender equality and the empowerment of all women as outlined in Goal 5. As the dust settles on the streets of New York, let us take a moment to reflect on what lies at stake for women and girls in the years to come.

An Agenda for Every Woman and Girl:

A stand-alone goal on gender with gender-sensitive targets is the first step in the right direction as far as women and girls are concerned. However, having learned from missed opportunities in the implementation of the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs), many feel that the SDGs are more comprehensive, inclusive and ambitious than the previous agenda. For one, gender is mentioned throughout the document and therefore creating the much needed linkages to diverse aspects of sustainable development. This is seen for example in the recognition of special needs and rights of women and girls in goals pertaining to environment, climate change, food security, water and sanitation and economic growth.

Secondly, while the gender equality goal (Goal 3) of the MDGs focused specifically on the gender parity in primary education, share of women in wage employment and the proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments; the gender equality goal (Goal 5) of SDGs has gone above and beyond these three areas with the intention of dismantling longstanding systemic discrimination and address structural barriers that limit women and girls advancement and rights. This include as eliminating discrimination and harmful traditional practices such as child and forced marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM), ending violence against women/girls in both public and private spheres, recognizing and valuing unpaid care and domestic work. The goal also calls for equal women’s rights to economic resources, universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights and the use of Information Communication and Technology (ICT) to promote the empowerment of women.

UN Women
UN Women

Lastly, women and girls must not be paid lip service. The achievement of the gender equality goal can only become a reality with the dedicated and consistent investment and resource coupled with the right data that will allow for monitoring and accountability.

We need commitment to unprecedented levels of financing – in scale, scope, and quality – to implement gender equality objectives of the SDGs, from all sources, at all levels. –Financing:Why it Matters for Women and Girls

As we go into the phase of making the Sustainable Development Goals our reality, we must remember we can not attain any of the SDGs without empowering women and girls. This calls for continued commitment and diligence that has been demonstrated by all stakeholders – an invitation to co-create an equal world for women and girls around the world.

Illustrations for the SDG campaign have been made for Girls’ Globe by artist Elina Tuomi.

Day of the African Child: It is Time to End Child Marriage

As the Region prepares to mark the Day of the African Child, the African Union has estimated that 58 million young women in developing countries have been married off before their 18th birthday. At the present trend, by 2020, 143 million girls would be married before age 18, an alarming average of 14.2 million girls every single year.

On June 16, 1976, nearly ten thousand black students from Soweto, South Africa, marched the streets to protest the poor quality of their education and demanding their right to be taught in their own language. Hundreds of innocent students were shot by security forces. And in the 2 weeks of protest that followed, dubbed the Soweto Uprising, more than a hundred students were killed and thousands were seriously injured. Since 1991, Day of the African Child has been celebrated on June 16 to commemorate those killed during the Soweto Uprising in South Africa, and to recognize the courage of the students who marched for their right to an education. Every year, a theme is identified and this year’s theme is “25 Years after the Adoption of the African Children’s Charter: Accelerating our Collective Efforts to End Child Marriage in Africa.” This is a special theme and the day will be commemorated by bringing together those affected by and working to end child marriage such as community leaders, traditional, religious leaders, girls affected by child marriage and key stakeholders.

The theme was inspired by a Day of General Discussion on child marriage during the 23rd Ordinary Session of the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC) in April 2014, which affirmed the recommendation of children to Member States to enhance their efforts to eliminate child marriage. Africa has the second highest rates of child marriage in the world after South Asia. West and Central Africa in particular follow closely on the heels of South Asia with two out of five (41%) girls marrying before 18 years.

Child marriage is a formal marriage or an informal union entered into by an individual before reaching the age of 18. The legally prescribed marriageable age in some jurisdictions is below 18 years, especially in the case of girls; and even when the age is set at 18 years, many jurisdictions permit earlier marriage with parental consent or in special circumstances, such as teenage pregnancy. In certain countries, even when the legal marriage age is 18, cultural traditions take priority over legislative law. Child marriage affects both boys and girls, though the overwhelming majority of those affected are girls, most of who are in poor socioeconomic situations. Child marriage is related to child betrothal and it includes civil cohabitation and court approved early marriages after teenage pregnancy.

Child marriage is a complex issue that is driven by a number of factors in different societies, and has devastating, long-term effects (health, education, psychological, and emotional) on the life and the future of girls. Child marriage is a human rights, gender, and health issue, as well as a cultural and developmental concern. The African Union considers this harmful practice of child marriage as a major hindrance to the development of the continent and this practice has to be faced if the continent is to be seen as progressive and ready to tackle the ever evolving dynamics of a changing world. The Commission launched a Campaign to End Child Marriage in May 2014 and has been focusing on a number of activities.

The Day of the African Child is also an opportunity to raise awareness of the ongoing need to improve the education of children living across Africa. It’s a need that still very much exists today. Education helps get families out of poverty but there are several reasons why many parents may not be able to take their children to school like affordable school fees, the distance to the nearest school, or early marriage which may keep girls from the classroom. These and many more barriers to education have an enormous impact on children, especially girls. Girls are active members of society, and they need the support of everybody to achieve their full potential.

Though progress has been made since the Soweto Uprising, many children are still missing from the classroom and much more work needs to be done to ensure all children are receiving a quality education, so that they can stay healthy, be more independent and become a force for social change.

Featured image photo credit: Arne Hoel / World Bank