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Fighting for Girlhood

Child marriage violates the rights of millions across the world each year. But the UN just took notable steps to end its ravages.

At age 15, Gita should have been cramming for math tests and gossiping with friends. Instead, she was forced to leave her family and the school she attended in the midwestern hills of Nepal to marry a man eight years older.

With that marriage, Gita’s trials had only begun. Not long after arriving at her new home, her mother-in-law pushed Gita into a room with her husband—of whom she was terrified—and locked the door from the outside. Before long, Gita was pregnant. She delivered her child at home with no help and suffered numerous complications.

Gita is one of more than 15 million girls worldwide subjected each year to child marriage, a centuries-old practice with often disastrous repercussions for young girls and their communities.

As noted in a 2013 report from the Center for Reproductive Rights, early marriage can instigate a range of human rights violations, leaving girls and women vulnerable to sexually contracted infections as well as domestic violence and rape. Girls between the ages of 15 and 19 are twice as likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth compared to women over 20, and the risk is far greater for those under 15.

“Child marriage is premised on patriarchal norms and harmful stereotypes of women and girls as subordinate to men and reflects deeply rooted gender inequality “ says Melissa Upreti, regional director for Asia at the Center. “It institutionalizes violence against girls and women and serves as a veil for unthinkable crimes which routinely go unrecognized and unpunished.”

Approximately half of child marriages currently take place in South Asia, and—unless the practice is abolished immediately—as many as 130 million South Asian girls will be forced into marriage by 2030.

The Center has been working closely with the South Asia Initiative to End Violence Against Children (SAIEVAC), which spearheaded the development of the Regional Action Plan to End Child Marriage in South Asia and the Kathmandu Call for Action, a call for governments in the region to denounce child marriage as a human rights violation, to bring their laws in line with international human rights standards, and truly enforce those laws.

To promote stronger legal accountability in the region, the Center organized a convening this past November in collaboration with SAIEVAC, where participants representing civil society and government bodies from eight South Asian states endorsed the Kathmandu Call for Action.

In a huge victory last month for women and girls across the globe, the United Nations Human Rights Council, the principal body at the U.N. that promotes and protects human rights for all, welcomed these regional commitments and unanimously adopted a groundbreaking resolution to eradicate child, early, and forced marriage. The resolution calls on states to implement national action plans on child marriage, and encourages partnering with civil society groups to develop and implement a holistic, comprehensive and coordinated response to address child marriage and support married girls.

“The Regional Action Plan to End Child Marriage in South Asia and the Kathmandu Call for Action—recognized and reinforced by the UN Council’s resolutions—generate hope for millions of women and girls like Gita in the region who have been forced to endure countless indignities and abuses,” says Upreti.

Ahead of the UN Council’s session, the Center and our partners advocated to strengthen the resolution by ensuring that it adequately recognized the human rights dimension of child marriage and built on regional initiatives and commitments already made by governments to end child marriage.

We hosted a side event at the UN co-sponsored by UNICEF, the World Health Organization, and other high-profile agencies that highlighted these concerns, featuring a panel with powerful voices from the affected regions, including Upreti and Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, general secretary of the World YWCA and African Union goodwill ambassador for the Campaign to End Child Marriage.

One day when Gita’s husband learned she was pregnant again, he accused her of adultery and attempted to electrocute her. It was then she decided to escape. She was able to return to her family home and—eight years after being forced to leave school—she reenrolled in the eighth grade.

At first, returning to middle school as a mother in her twenties was difficult. But Gita gathered courage and studied hard to pass the standard exams and continue her education. Her husband later filed for divorce when he married another girl.

Upreti emphasizes that while Gita survived one ordeal after another as a child bride and a young wife, child marriage causes irreparable harm and there are some wounds that simply never heal. Legal remedies can help women and girls get out of situations that are abusive or life threatening and, with the right support systems in place, give them the opportunity to rebuild their lives.

However, such remedies cannot give them back their lost childhood. Where girls suffer serious repercussions to their reproductive health, their physical integrity can never be fully restored. It is important for violations associated with child marriage to be prevented altogether by enacting and enforcing laws that prohibit child marriage. 

“Stopping the continuum of harm that is triggered by early marriage is only possible when governments fully implement laws and policies that prohibit child marriage, and when women are aware of their rights and empowered to make decisions about marriage,” says Upreti.  

Moving forward, the Center is working to support the implementation of the Regional Action Plan to End Child Marriage in South Asia and the Kathmandu Call for Action. This will ensure that governments in the region are able to play a central role in shaping a better future for millions of women and their families across the world.

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