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UN General Assembly panel discussion on child, early and forced marriage and its implications for the post-2015 development agenda, Statement by the Deputy High Commissioner

5 September 2014

Thank you for the invitation to address you today at this panel discussion. The discussion around child and forced marriage has gained considerable momentum in the past year. As you know, OHCHR presented its report on this topic and convened a panel discussion in June at the Human Rights Council. One of the main recommendations of our report, reinforced by the panel, was the need for comprehensive approaches to eliminate child, early and forced marriage, as part of broader efforts to promote equality and eliminate discrimination against women and girls. Integrating these approaches into the development discourse is a critical action and the panel today continues this important conversation.

Since the Human Rights Council in June, the Open Working Group has submitted its proposal of the Sustainable Development Goals to the General Assembly. Critically, target 5.3 calls for the elimination of all harmful practices, “including child, early and forced marriage.” Today’s panel presents the opportunity to look back at the implications of the MDGs having failed to include explicit attention to child marriage, and to emphasize the importance of maintaining this target going forward as the international community agrees to a post-2015 framework.

There is a host of human rights issues associated with the three categories of child, early and forced marriage. In the case of child and forced marriages, informed consent of the girl or woman is inherently absent, a serious human rights violation. Rights related to access to education, information, health services, and productive resources as well as decision making, also are at risk in child and forced marriages, and can equally be issues in early marriages. With the specific target on this issue in the SDG proposal to the General Assembly, one critical next step will be to ensure common understanding of each of these terms – child, early and forced – based on authoritative guidance from human rights mechanisms.

Not only do these practices violate the rights of the girl child or woman who is married off, but often solidifies a cycle of deprivation and rights denials which is passed on to the children of these women and girls, especially their daughters. Inevitably, such rights violations have significant development costs. At the same time, eliminating child and forced marriage will require overcoming development challenges, such as lack of education and persistent poverty, which are still too commonplace in many countries.

In some communities, marriage is perceived as a way to economically provide for girls and women who have no autonomous access to productive resources and are living in situations of extreme poverty. Sometimes, the economic benefit is bigger when the children are younger - such as lower dowries for younger brides. Child and forced marriage is strongly associated with girls who have received little or no formal education. Poor-quality schooling, overcrowding, unqualified teachers and gender-based violence often increase the likelihood of child or forced marriage as the only option for many girls. In this regard, finding effective ways to lift communities out of poverty and to keep girls in school must remain development priorities including as strategies to eliminate child and forced marriage.

But this will not be enough. The roots of child and forced marriage are also to be found in continued discrimination based on sex and widespread stereotypes about the role of women and girls in the family and in society. It is increasingly recognized that sustainable development is impossible to achieve so long as the talents and skills of half the population are squandered. Child and forced marriage is one of the most glaring manifestations of how discrimination and inequality have hindered progress for women and girls.

Once married, girls and young women face lesser educational, employment and other economic opportunities, and thus experience challenges in building their capacity to claim their rights. This links tightly with the development priority to achieve gender equality, as it revolves around the need to eliminate discrimination in areas such as access to quality education and access to land and other productive resources. It also encompasses the need to address harmful stereotypes concerning girls’ and women’s roles in society.

Child and forced marriage is also a matter of health and survival. Early and frequent pregnancies and forced continuation of pregnancy are all common in child marriages. As many as 90 percent of adolescent pregnancies occur within marriage, and these are the girls who are the most at risk of dying during pregnancy or childbirth. Girls and women who are subjected to child and forced marriage are often not empowered to make decisions about, or lack accurate information about, their sexual and reproductive health and rights. This compromises their ability to decide on the number and spacing of their children and negotiate contraceptive use and exposes them to sexually transmitted infections and HIV. The need for age-appropriate, culturally relevant and empirically based comprehensive education on sexuality and sexual and reproductive health has been consistently repeated in this regard.

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

Putting the human rights of every girl and woman at the center of our attention as we agree a framework for the post-2015 development agenda would mean that no girl drops out of school to get married, that girls and young women are fully empowered to choose if and when to get married, and then to choose if and when to have children. It means that communities and families would treat girls and women as equal members of society with rights to work, to study, and to lead; not as economic assets or vessels of reproduction. And when we do this, the benefits accrue not only to the girls and women directly involved – but to every man, woman and child – because societies will prosper. I hope that the discussions today will continue the incredible momentum to end child marriage, and generate support for sustainable programmes, owned and supported by key stakeholders in communities and countries.