Over half of the worlds population is female, yet they unjustly receive an unfair balance in life from conception. No society is spared from it’s second class treatment of the female population. No matter how long and hard the fight has been — and while some countries are clearly better than others — girls are still treated less favorably in all aspects than boys in education, healthcare, employment, abuse and lower class value. The voices of girls across the globe have far too often been silenced; however, on December 19, 2011, the United Nations General Assembly heard their cries and adopted Resolution 66/170 to declare October 11 as the International Day of the Girl Child to recognize girls’ rights and the unique challenges girls face around the world. The day will promote girls’ rights, highlight gender inequalities that remain between girls and boys, and address the various forms of discrimination and abuse suffered by girls around the globe.
Today as we observe the first International Day of the Girl Child, the theme and focus is placed on ending child marriage. Child marriage is a fundamental human rights violation and impacts every aspect of a girl’s life. For millions of little girls across the world, childhood is brief as child marriage denies her a childhood. She is less likely to complete her education and maintain social circles. It limits her opportunities, increases her risk to be a victim of violence and abuse, and in extreme instances, abuse can result in death or honor killings if a girl attempts to flee an abusive husband. Child marriage jeopardizes her health. In many countries, the myth of using sex with a virgin to cure sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS remains widely commonplace. Girls who marry young consequently give birth young, and therefore have an increased risk for complications or even death in childbirth. Child brides are also more likely to be voiceless in their marriage regarding most, if not all, major decisions. Child marriage is therefore an obstacle to the achievement of almost all of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the development of healthy communities across the globe. It is estimated that 10 million girls a year (25,000 a day) worldwide — the majority in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia — are married before the age of 18, some as young as seven or eight.
Although many countries have now set minimum legal ages for marriage, the laws are often ignored or sometimes unheard. In many countries, the minimum legal age for marriage is 16-18; however, this law is widely ignored in the rural areas where illiteracy remains high, making it increasingly difficult to end this archaic practice. The U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child states in Article 1 that a child is anyone under 18 years of age, and in Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it states that persons must be at “full age” at the time of marriage, which must be entered into “freely” and with “full consent.” The 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women requires minimum ages for marriage to be specified by states and declares child marriages as illegal under Article 16.
Today, on the first United Nations International Day on the Girl Child, we call on States to increase the age of marriage to 18 years of age for girls and boys without exception and adopt urgent measures to prevent child marriage. As with all forms of slavery, forced early marriages should be criminalized. They cannot be justified on traditional, religious, cultural or economic grounds. — Joint Statement* by a group of U.N. human rights experts to mark the first International Day of the Girl Child, Thursday, 11 October 2012 (U.N.).
How do we end this outdated practice that continues to violate the rights of girls across the globe? The causes and implications of child marriage are complex and interconnected; thus, there is no simple solution to eradicate child marriage. In order to end child marriage for good, we must look at all the reasons that people continue to practice child marriage. In addition, states and the international community must ensure that families are educated about the true effects of child marriage and gender equality and see to it that sustainable solutions are put in place to ensure the rights of the child. Making education available for girls, seeing that families have other alternatives to paying debts, eliminating poverty, and providing health education on HIV/AIDS and other diseases, are all needed to end the suffering of girls across the globe.
Education for girls is one of the best strategies for protecting girls against child marriage. When they are able to stay in school and avoid being married early, girls can build a foundation for a better life for themselves and their families. And if they have already been married young, access to education, economic opportunities and health services — including HIV prevention and sexual and reproductive health — will help enrich their lives and enhance their future. – Ban Ki-moon, U.N. Secretary-General (U.N.).
As I stated in my 2011 year end review, the fight against gender inequality will one of the biggest battles of 2012. With the observance of such a day focused on just the rights of girls and the growth of U.N. Women the year prior, the rights of girls across the globe are finally making their way to the top of the agenda. While the issues of girls across the globe are gaining more attention, our focus cannot shift but only intensify as ending gender inequality is the key to ensuring sustainable development, prosperity and peace for all. The extreme plight of girls around the world has been made very clear in numerous studies over the years, and most of the gender struggle and imbalance is right there in plain sight. We must continue to listen; we must hear the whole story.
Girls have been striving throughout time for full equality — isn’t it time we woke up and saw that by marginalizing girls, we are only crippling our society? Let us take today to not only celebrate the girl, but to see that her voice is heard loud and clear, to see that her fundamental rights are no longer ones she must fight for and often die for. When we hear the voice of the girl child loud and clear, we will hear the voice of freedom and prosperity.