Will We End Child Marriage By 2030?

In 2015, I attended the first ever Girls’ Summit on Ending Child Marriage in Africa. Soon after, I wrote about my experience for Girls’ Globe.

The event was inspiring and highlighted 4 key areas of action: education, economic empowerment, involving traditional leaders, and valuing the girl child. For this year’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, I would like to reflect on lessons learned in 2015. How has advocacy surrounding child marriage progressed over the past 4 years?

Child marriage robs girls of their futures, violates their rights and impedes on the development of their countries. It is a form of gender-based violence rooted in inequality.

The number of child brides around the world is estimated at 650 million. This includes girls already married and women who were married in childhood. South Asia has the highest number of child brides, followed by sub-Saharan Africa. Although the practice of child marriage has declined around the world, no region is currently on track to eliminate child marriage by 2030 as outlined by Sustainable Development Goal 5.

However, through multi-sector partnerships, significant strides have been made. In 2016, UNICEF and UNFPA launched a global program to tackle child marriage in 12 countries. The Global Program to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage supports nations in providing life skills, education, community awareness, and national plans of action to prevent child marriage.

Reflecting on the lessons learned from the summit, it is clear that there are many contributing factors that influence child marriage. Education, economic empowerment, and community involvement remain key to ending the practice. But efforts cannot remain independent.

Single-sector interventions have proven insuccessful in the past. For instance, many countries have yet to outlaw child marriage by setting the legal age for marriage at 18 (or above) for both girls and boys. Even in countries that do have legislation, additional policies and interventions are required to enforce the law and ensure compliance.

Moving forward, in order to end child marriage by 2030, global progress needs to occur at a rate 12 times faster than that of the past decade.

To achieve this, countries must commit to increased financial and legislative support as well as prioritize strengthened partnerships across all sectors. Child marriage is a form of violence which disproportionally affects girls and puts them at huge risk of future violence throughout their lives. To eliminate gender-based violence, we have to end child marriage.

Motherhood in Conflict: Colleen’s Story

In northern Uganda, many mothers have lived through armed conflict. Some gave birth in a time when murder, abduction, mutilation and rape were common practices. It was a time when child soldiers were forced to kill loved ones. What would it be like to become and be a mother in this context?

Colleen* is one of the women I grew very close to during my time volunteering in a counselling centre in Northern Uganda. Like Achola, she told me about her experiences of motherhood during and after the war.

Becoming a Mother in a Conflict Zone

I visited Colleen at her home in rural Ngetta, close to the city of Lira in the northern part of Uganda. The region has been badly affected by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) insurgency. There were great consequences for all, and especially for pregnant women and mothers.

Colleen told me that she was abducted by rebels from the LRA when she was only 15. She escaped them by hiding in the open stem of a bush. Colleen told me that she became a mother at the same time as losing both of her parents, who were killed by the rebels. She spoke about how hard it was to flee from the rebels night after night, while ensuring the safety of her siblings and her baby.

Colleen’s experiences of the war have been debilitating, and she is still recovering. Though the war ended more than a decade ago, Colleen continues to be in emotional and physical pain. She tells me:

“When I was with my baby hiding in the bush, somebody stepped on my waist. It affected my waist so much up to date. Whenever I laugh, I could just fall unconscious for some minutes. It is still painful.”

What is very striking about Colleen’s story is that it demonstrates that life after war can still be filled with terror. For Colleen, the days of violence are not over.

‘Post-Conflict’ Motherhood

Just after Colleen had been abducted by the rebels, she was married at 16 to her current husband. The day I spoke with her, he was out working on nearby land. Colleen leaned towards me and whispered in my ear:

“I never wanted to marry him, my brothers forced me to marry him cause they needed money and animals [bride price] so that they can marry their wives.”

The practice of bride price is one of many practices that highlight the negative effects of poverty and patriarchy on women’s wellbeing.

The women I worked with told me that in their communities, girls are usually seen as a commodity by both their natal family and their new husband. As soon as a girl is born, she is a source of income for her family. This puts girls and young women at great risk of being forced into early or childhood marriage. This is exactly what happened to Colleen.

Colleen is now in an unhappy and abusive marriage. The years of grabbing her children and running into the bush have not been forgotten. These days, however, when she runs with her children it is not to escape the rebels, but the violence of her husband.

For Colleen, instead of a safe place, her home is a place of terror.

The end of the conflict with the Lord’s Resistance Army was supposedly meant to be time of peace. For many women, however, peace-time violence continues to disrupt and negatively influence their well-being.

Colleen’s Way Forward

Though Colleen’s daily life is characterized by the violent relationship with her husband, it does not define her. Colleen experiences a lot of joy in the relationship with her children, and with her female friends who she meets in her neighbourhood and in the local counselling centre. The women often sing and dance together:

“During the rebel time there was no music, now there is music and we can dance and feel better. I dance! … I always dance and listen [to music] because it is telling me about peace, if it is gospel it is counselling me also. There are songs which you listen to and it teaches you about peace.”

Community groups, the church, gospel songs and the local counselling centre are all crucial for Colleen’s recovery. We need to acknowledge the importance of creativity and body work in psycho-social and mental health support. For Colleen, dancing and singing is not only simply enjoyable, it also offers a way of healing.  

*Colleen is a pseudonym. The image accompanying this article does not depict the woman who told this story.

Standing with Syrian Women and Girls

Last year on the anniversary of the Syrian Civil War, I wrote about the disappearing girls in Syria.

A year later, the whereabouts of many women and girls are still unknown. There are an estimated 3,000 missing Yazidi and likely as many missing Christian women and girls. We don’t know exactly how many women and girls are missing because their disappearance isn’t always reported. This can be due to fear, stigma around trafficking, and forced marriages.

Girls and women have been abducted by various forces throughout Syria, but sexual slavery and forced marriage are a key part of ISIS ideology.

In December 2014, ISIS publicly released guidelines – even putting them in a pamphlet for mass distribution – on keeping slaves. In 2015, they followed up with more detailed guidelines on when and how they could sexually assault and rape enslaved women.

That same year, they systematically attacked Assyrian villages, capturing Christian women and girls as young as nine. Women from Bangladesh and other countries have also been trafficked into Syria. In 2016, the group trafficked thousands of Yazidi women and girls from Iraq to Syria.

Women and girls in Syria, like women and girls in all conflicts, suffer disproportionately. Meanwhile, the world largely ignores them.

This week, Nadia Murad wrote an article: Prioritizing ISIS over Survivors. She asked why the global community spends so little “on the survivors, on healing their wounds and communities, on freeing them to live again?”

But women have mobilized themselves. Many fought to escape ISIS, some losing their lives in their battle. Survivors tell stories of enslaved women supporting each other to find subversive forms of resistance.

Women created spaces and even villages, like Jinwar, for women and children only to ensure their freedom and protection. One third of Kurdish combatants are women who engaged in direct battle with ISIS and are responsible for liberating ISIS-held areas of Syria like Raqqa. If one positive thing emerges from this this relentless and brutal war, it is women liberating women.

As the last ISIS stronghold breaks down, ISIS fighters are being forced to release hundreds of enslaved women and girls. Yet many will never be free.

As I know from working in conflicts, when a power is defeated the people who practice its ideology don’t go away. They simply go underground.

As ISIS loses political control, men with enslaved women and girls can keep them by false claims of marriage, including “short contract marriages.” These “marriages” are a type of trafficking, where girls and women endure systematic rape by one temporary “husband” after another.

Still, sometimes what is happening in Syria bleeds into our own communities. A Google search of “Syrian girls for sale” shows that the distance between injustice in Syria and in our communities may not be that far after all.

It hurts to feel that we can do very little to stop the widespread sexual violence in Syria and support released survivors. Yet disconnection and powerlessness are illusions. We can have an impact on human trafficking in our corner of the world, and the shared struggle, shared purpose and shared values link us with women and girls a world away.

Here are a few ways that we can all fight against human trafficking:   

– Learn the signs of human trafficking, and know local reporting protocols.

– Volunteer and support anti-trafficking organizations in your community.

– Buy products from organizations that employ and support survivors, like my personal favorite survivor-focused enterprise, White Field Farm.

– Let your local and national government know that you care about the freedom, safety and dignity of girls and women. Choosing which pressing social justice issue to fight for can be overwhelming, but speaking out about other issues does not preclude speaking out against trafficking.

– Remember that sex trafficking is one type of trafficking. Others being forced labor, domestic servitude, debt bondage, and use of child soldiers. Learn your slavery footprint, and work to reduce it.

As some Syrian women and girls are being released and as others remain enslaved, we have to be careful not to link this type of mass exploitation with the Syrian war.

Trafficking and sexual abuse and exploitation of women and girls exists everywhere.

To end it globally, we must expose and fight its local forms. In doing so, we are participating in the global struggle for freedom and dignity of women and girls. By standing with survivors right where we are, we stand with them everywhere – including in Syria.

Politics Affects our Health: the Case of Sudan

‘Social determinants of health’ are the circumstances and surroundings that influence an individual’s health outcomes.

Researchers have focused on social determinants of health for decades and there is now a general consensus that higher socioeconomic status predicts better odds of future health and well-being. While this notion is scientifically accepted, it prompts the question: what creates these social determinants of health? This has brought much needed attention to the ways in which politics affect health – both directly and indirectly.

‘Political determinants of health’ are the factors that shape the social determinants of health. This is a relatively new concept and is of particular significance for women. An example of the link between politics and health can be found in Sudan.

In Sudan, the political climate is shaped by religion and the constitution is based on teachings of Sharia Law. Currently, many communities face extreme financial strain as a result of failed past politics and/or war and insecurity. This has increased pre-existing and vast social inequities, including gaps in financial and educational opportunities.

The political situation in Sudan has had inevitable consequences for health.

Social disadvantage falls heavier on women. Until recently, girls have been denied the same education as their male counterparts. Lack of education leads to limited knowledge of health, which affects an individual’s ability to improve their own health outcomes. 

One example is the issue of sexual and reproductive health. Sexuality and sexual behaviour are sensitive topics rarely discussed in conservative, religious cultures like Sudan’s. Sexual and reproductive health and rights do not enjoy a high-priority status among political agendas, either, and there has been very little consideration of introducing sexual education into classrooms. However, many educators and health officials have started to support sex education in schools, resulting in increasing support by legislators.

Another example is the high prevalence of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Sudan, at a prevalence of approximately 89% countrywide. The harmful practice continues to affect many areas of the country, and although it is legally banned, it is well-known to continue with the open support of many religious leaders. This is a clear example of failed implementation of legislation that has allowed FGM to remain prevalent despite wide-spread efforts by campaigns and NGO peer-education programs.

Under Sudanese constitution, child marriage, forced marriage or marital rape are not against the law.

Much of the country’s legislation does not provide any protection for women’s rights. As a result, many Sudanese women fear persecution.

One case that struck the international community was that of Noura Hussein in 2018. The 19-year-old was sentenced to death for fatally stabbing her husband – who she had allegedly been forced to marry – after he attempted to rape her. In the eyes of the law, marital rape does not exist, and so Hussein had no claims to self-defence as she was viewed as a belonging of her husband. The ruling was thankfully overturned after increasing international pressure on the Sudanese government. Hussein received a reduced sentence of 5 years in prison. 

Historically, women in Sudan have been forced to be subordinate to men. Although this is changing and vast improvements have been made, drastic changes to the country’s politics and constitution are needed to ensure full protection of women’s rights – especially their rights to health and wellbeing. 


Women in the DR Congo: Standing in Solidarity

Before I went to the DR Congo, I knew the eastern part of the country as the rape capital of the world. The armed conflicts of the 1990s and the continued social and political unrest created an atmosphere where sexual violence emerged as a norm. One estimate is that 48 women are raped an hour.

I couldn’t get my mind off of the rape statistics- and who could? But working with a group of university women in the eastern DR Congo, I learned that mass rape is one symptom of an overarching sexual inequality so powerful, persistent and invasive that it is written into the legal and social fabric of the society.

According to the DR Congo Family Code, dowry is a condition for marriage. With dowry, often a woman’s humanity is secondary to money and material items. Some sources estimate that 25,000 women are killed or severely injured globally in conflicts over dowry. Child marriage also persists in the DR Congo. Although the legal marriage age for women is 18, girls can marry at the age of 15 with parental consent. Parental consent translates to the forced marriage of girls before they are able to give their own free, prior and fully informed consent to a decision that impacts every aspect of their lives. According to the UNFPA, in the DR Congo two out of five girls will marry before their 18th birthday.

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons
Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons

The Family Code directly states that a wife “may not exercise the role of head of the family.” A married woman needs her husband’s permission to access contraception, get a job and open a bank account. The women I worked with told me stories about sexual harassment in universities and workplaces. When I asked them about contraception, many had not heard of it. Family planning was more familiar, but, as they pointed out, a man’s decision.

A social structure that subordinates and silences half of the population cannot last.

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons
Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons

“It’s time,” one student told me, “that we stop believing that we can’t. Because we can.” Young women in the DR Congo are tired of relinquishing their agency and autonomy to the patriarchy. They are starting to organize locally. More and more woman are participating in the controversial group La Lucha, which aims for grassroots social, political and economic change. When women participate in grassroots reform, policy reform reflects their views and not just that of their male counterparts.

Men want change too. Last year, two dozen Congolese men started V-Men which, inspired by V-Day and the mass movement to end violence against women, fights for women’s rights. These men realize that their dignity is impacted when they must give consent for their wives to work. They understand that their humanity suffers when women can’t plan their pregnancies and when children marry. We must come to realize that, regardless of how far away from these problems we live, our humanity is impacted too.

Global outcry can support local change. We can support equality in the DR Congo by showing we are as appalled by the social inequality that permits mass rape as we are by mass rape itself. We can raise our voices along with the voices of the young women and men in the DR Congo. Standing in solidarity means supporting change.

One Year On: #YouthForChange mark the Girl Summit anniversary

This post was originally published on Voices of Youth.

One year ago this month, South London’s Walworth Academy welcomed a group of guests with a unifying belief – that female genital mutilation (FGM) and child, early and forced marriage (CEFM) can and must end within a generation. On Wednesday 22nd July, we celebrated the progress made over the past year – #YouthForChange Panel Member and Girls’ Globe blogger Eleanor was there to capture the event.

Girl Summit 2014 was co-hosted by the UK government and UNICEF, and attendees included over 600 campaigners, NGOs, activists, government representatives, civil servants and heads of state. The event marked the moment that the silence surrounding FGM and CEFM was well and truly broken, and done so in front of a global audience.

The Girl Summit Charter has been signed by 43 governments and has led to significant change. Existing laws have been enforced; Egypt prosecuted a case following a death associated with FGM and Kenya has seen 30 arrests, and new laws have been created; Nigeria passed a law to ban FGM in May this year. Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Mali, Yemen and Zambia have started legal reforms to end child marriage, and Malawi has raised the minimum age of marriage from 15 to 18.

In the UK, the Government has funded a £1.4 million national FGM Prevention Programme, introduced new FGM civil protection orders, and plans to carry out a national inspection into the police’s response to Honour Based Violence.

Girl Summit 2014 also inspired a new wave of determination from campaigners, activists and NGOs. Existing organisations such as Girls Not Brides, FORWARD, Care International, Integrate Bristol, The Orchid Project and Rosa have accelerate their work on FGM and CEFM – new movements like The Girl Generation and #YouthForChange used Girl Summit as a springboard to join the fight.

The mood of the Girl Summit Anniversary event was therefore, quite rightly so, one of celebration. Gordon Campbell, Canadian High Commissioner to the UK, set the tone for the evening with a quote from Goethe: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it”. Since Girl Summit the government of Canada has provided more than C$1.6million to over 70 grassroots projects focused on CEFM around the world, and has contributed C$20 million to UNICEF.

Secretary of State Justine Greening reiterated the UK Government’s commitment to fighting for and protecting girls’ rights – here in the UK and around the world. She assured the room that girls and women will stay at the very heart of DFID’s work – this reflects her consistent commitment to #YouthForChange over the past year, which we couldn’t be more thankful for!

“We’re going to keep fighting this battle, with a growing number of other countries, with more and more campaigners, until we win it for good, for girls.”

The highlight of the evening were testimonials from my fellow panel members. Fatima, Ifrah, Harry, Muna and Daniel each spoke to the room about their journey before and since the Girl Summit – and about how YouthForChange has made sure that young voices remain at the heart of global efforts to end FGM and CEFM.

Deeply personal – and immensely powerful – each of their stories focused on the fact that Girl Summit provided young people with the chance to be heard. Muna put it simply: “Girl Summit was about giving young people a real, true voice”. Looking forward, Fatima told us that “in working together, supporting and celebrating each other, we can create a ripple effect for lasting change”, and Ifrah outlined the global commitment required from this point onwards: “No one should be able to opt out of education that protects girls”. They spoke with conviction and clarity and proved, just in case anyone had missed the point, that youth voices are invaluable to development conversations.

This event made me feel proud and excited to be part of #YouthForChange. It was fantastic to have the opportunity to reflect on the success and progress of the last year whilst at the same time ensuring that we don’t lose momentum. Without a focused, persistent effort from those with decision making and influencing powers, the number of girls around the world facing a future filled with violence and discrimination will continue to rise. For #YouthForChange, the next year promises to be as difficult and as rewarding as the last.

Make sure you watch this space – we’re only just getting started.

Interested in more information about progress made since the Girl Summit?

Check out Girl Summit’s ‘One Year On’ update report,

Read #YouthForChange Panel Member June’s article for the New Statesman.