The annual conference “Commission on the Status of Women” (CSW), which takes place at the United Nations Headquarters, is a key gathering of the global women’s movement to discuss, network and push for agreed conclusions in line with an annual priority theme. This year, the conference focused on “Empowering Rural Women and Girls” and unlike a previous conference focusing on the same topic, this time around agreed conclusions were reached. More than 5,000 representatives of civil society organisations from across the globe met at the CSW conference held in New York/USA from the 12th to the 23rd March 2018.
In the framework of the 62nd CSW, Plan International Germany and BMZ hosted a side event entitled “Advancing the Development of Rural Women and Girls by Ending Child Marriage” at the Permanent Mission of Germany to the United Nations. With a geographical focus on Southern Africa, the event brought together voices from the Government of Zambia, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment and Civil Society to discuss child marriage as an indicator of discrimination, overall development and the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Sexual reproductive health and rights (SRHR) are key issues to be discussed and considered when talking about empowering women and girls living in rural areas in developing countries. Moreover, this includes a dialogue about women’s and girls’ ability to make informed, independent and conscious decisions about their body as well as women’s and girls’ ability to decide if, when and who to marry. World-wide, rural girls, compared to girls living in urban areas, are facing a higher risk of early marriage, which often hinders them to overcome the vicious cycle of poverty. Child marriage keeps women and girls from making full use of their potential. As a result, they cannot contribute to the development of their community and their country as a whole. That is why child marriage has to be discussed not only as a human rights issue but equally as an economic issue.
In Eastern and Southern Africa, 38 per cent of women aged 20 to 24 years are married before the age of 18, and 10 per cent are married before the age of 15. Currently, there are roughly seven million child brides in the sub-region. Thus, the potential of seven million women and girls has not been fully harnessed to contribute to overall development of the countries as well as the continent as a whole. The numbers are even more striking when considering the trend that they have not declined significantly in recent years. “Twenty-eight girls get married each minute,” Johanna Klotz of BMZ reminded the meeting.
The Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) defines a child as a human below the age of 18. Accordingly, child marriage is defined as a marriage that involves at least one spouse below the age of 18. Nevertheless, panellists at the side event agreed that the term child marriage normalises what is in fact violation. “Child marriage is a term that is sanitising and normalising this horrific act. It is not a marriage under international law so even the conventions and reports need to be updated to reflect what is an action of violence, which is rape,” stated Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, African Union Goodwill Ambassador to End Child Marriage. “Child marriage is rape,” quoted Maike Röttger (National Director of Plan International Germany) a young woman survivor of child marriage from Zimbabwe.
In order to address this harmful practice, several governments have started to take action, amongst them Zambia. Formulating legal frameworks to end child marriage was not enough, remarked Auxilia Ponga, Permanent Secretary of the Zambian Ministry of Gender and Child Development. She pointed out that the Zambian Government was taking responsibility in this regard. Overall, participants of the side event agreed that there was a need to share best practices and strategies that worked to end child marriage. The meeting also drew attention to the issue that many women, especially young women from rural areas were denied opportunities to take part in discussions concerning them. For example, many young women had not received a visa to travel to New York and were thus denied the opportunity to voice their matters and concerns.
It was emphasised that girls had to remain at the centre of the discussions concerning them. Girls and young women knew the solutions to the issues affecting their lives and should take an integral part in the discussion about gender equality, human rights and ending child marriage.
Plan International is a leading global partner to end child marriage as well as a humanitarian development organisation that fights for children's rights and equality for girls.
Monika Bihlmaier, Team Leader for Eastern and Southern Africa, Plan International Germany, Hamburg, Germany
More information on the 62nd session of the CSW