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Human Rights Council holds panel discussion on preventing and eliminating child, early and forced marriage

Human Rights Council 
AFTERNOON

23 June 2014

The Human Rights Council this afternoon held a panel discussion on preventing and eliminating child, early and forced marriage.
 
Flavia Pansieri, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, opening the discussion, said that the existing abusive practices could not be characterised as “marriages”.  If present trends continued, some 142 million girls would be married off before their 18th birthday by 2020, 39,000 every day.  The collective experience demonstrated that the problem was not insurmountable, and solutions existed to address the root causes.  Child marriage was rooted in unequal gender status and power relations that could result in the perpetual subjugation of girls and women.  Discriminatory cultural gender practices, poverty and insecurity were among the key contributing factors.
 
Before introducing the panellists, Yvette Stevens, Permanent Representative of Sierra Leone to the United Nations Office at Geneva and Panel Moderator, recalled that child, early and forced marriage concerned human rights, gender, health and culture and was underpinned by complex factors.  It was important to include this issue in the context of the post-2015 development agenda.
 
Violetta Neubauer, Chair of the Working Group on Harmful Practices of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, said that the Convention and the jurisprudence developed by the Committee set out the framework to address these issues, including how violence against women could impact the enjoyment of human rights in other areas. 
 
Kate Gilmore, Deputy Executive Director (Programme) at the United Nations Population Fund, said that the human rights implications of child and forced marriage were significant and grave.  In developing counties, a quarter of adolescent girls that were married or in union lacked opportunity of access to contraceptives and many were victims of sexual violence. 
 
Pooja Badarinath, Programme Coordinator, Advocacy and Research (CREA), said that control over the sexual and reproductive rights of young girls and women were among the root causes of child and forced marriage.  Often, efforts to prevent did not address root causes and thus had unsatisfactory results.  The impact of child marriage on sexual and reproductive health was quite known. 
 
Soyata Maiga, Special Rapporteur on the rights of women at the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights, described the ways in which the Commission addressed the continuing discriminatory harmful practice of early and forced marriages and said that this issue was regularly invoked in their communications with Member States. 
 
Ayman Sadek, Upper Egypt Programme Area Manager, Plan International, said that Plan International was committed to combating early and child marriages not only as a developmental problem but as a human rights violation.  In Egypt, despite the legislative amendments, 23 per cent of girls were married before the age of 18 and child marriage was an age-old tradition entrenched in culture.  This practice was also related to female genital mutilation and drop out from school. 
 
Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, African Union Goodwill Ambassador for the Campaign to End Child Marriage, said that this was an issue about life, families, communities, broken dreams and shattered bodies; about girls at risk of marriage, just as much as it was about the millions of adolescent mothers and girls in marriage.  It was about the 276 Nigerian girls from Chibok, who had yet to be rescued.
 
During the discussion speakers reiterated the strong links between child, early and forced marriage and poverty: it undermined the well-being of women and young girls and constituted an obstacle to other human rights.  It was high time to reverse the trend of child, early and forced marriage, a human rights violation that affected not only women and girls but affected generations to come.  Delegations expressed concern at the fact that children in early marriages were often subjected to violence and sexual violence.  These harmful practices robbed them of their childhood and limited their education and opportunities in life.   The consequences were well documented and recognized, however, this harmful practice continued. 
 
Comprehensive and coordinated approaches were needed.  In order to end this practice, the international community required sustainable programmes, owned and supported by key stakeholders in communities and countries.  Underlying causes had to be addressed, and increased awareness and the participation of civil society would be of great assistance.  Speakers also stressed the importance of addressing the root causes and the need for the Council to be involved in the ongoing discussions on the  post-2015 development agenda to ensure that child, early and forced marriage was seen from a human rights perspective. 
 
The following delegations spoke during the dialogue: Ethiopia on behalf of the African Group, European Union, Austria on behalf of a group of States, Norway on behalf of the Nordic Countries, Costa Rica on behalf of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, Egypt on behalf of the Arab Group, Canada, United Nations Children Fund, Montenegro, Spain, Maldives, Belgium, Israel, United States, Congo, France, Italy, Netherlands, Honduras, Estonia, United Kingdom, Iran, Angola and Syria
 
The following national human rights institution and non-governmental organizations also took the floor: National Council of Human Rights of Morocco, Plan International, Save the Children International, Centre for Reproductive Rights, Sudwind, and British Humanist Association.
 
The Council will resume its work on Tuesday, 24 June at 9 a.m., when it will continue the general debate on the Universal Periodic Review, followed by a general debate on the human rights situation in Palestine and other Occupied Arab Territories.
 
Documentation
 
The Council has before it the report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on Preventing and Eliminating Child, Early and Forced Marriage (A/HRC/26/22)
 
Opening Statement
 
FLAVIA PANSIERI, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, in her opening remarks, said that the existing abusive practices could not be characterised as “marriages”.  If present trends continued, some 142 million girls would be married off before their 18th birthday by 2020, 39,000 every day.  The collective experience demonstrated that the problem was not insurmountable, and solutions existed to address the root causes.  Child marriage was rooted in unequal gender status and power relations that could result in the perpetual subjugation of girls and women.  Discriminatory cultural gender practices, poverty and insecurity were among key contributing factors.  Child marriage and early childbearing created significant obstacles to employment, education and other opportunities for girls and young women, who were often exposed to physical, psychological, economic and sexual violence, forced labour and so-called “honour crimes”.  All those contributed to high rates of death, for both the young mothers and their infant children. 
 
United Nations human rights treaty bodies clearly articulated that both parties to marriage had to be at least 18 years old, and both had to give free and full consent to the union.  Some of the lessons learned from ongoing efforts in that regard included having civil society organizations, women’s groups, religious and community leaders, and other stakeholders fully involved.  The best interest of the child, aligned with international human rights standards, should always be borne in mind.  Incentive and support payments for school attendance had also proven to be helpful.  There should be more data analysis to identify communities in which girls were at high risk of early and forced marriage.  New technological networks could also help create “virtual safe spaces”.  Eliminating early, child and forced marriage was of fundamental importance in moving forward the agendas on the rights of women and girls and development.  All States were invited to swiftly implement the recommendations made in the report of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
 
Statements by the Panellists
 
YVETTE STEVENS, Permanent Representative of Sierra Leone to the United Nations Office at Geneva and Panel Moderator, recalled that child, early and forced marriage concerned human rights, gender, health and culture and was underpinned by complex factors.  It was important to include this issue in the context of the post-2015 development agenda.  Ms. Stevens asked Ms. Neubauer, from the Committee’s perspective, how had the Committee analysed the issue of child, early and forced marriage, and the Committee’s view regarding terminology. 
 
VIOLETTA NEUBAUER, Chair of the Working Group on Harmful Practices, Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, said that the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the jurisprudence developed by the Committee set out the framework to address these issues, including how violence against women could impact the enjoyment of human rights in other areas.  The Convention covered the spectrum of human rights in all fields and did not only focus on human rights already embodied in international instruments, but it recognised the importance of culture in shaping behaviour and restricting the enjoyment of rights by girls and women.  All too often, due to inequality, discrimination on the ground of sex and gender began at birth; and in many cases, in places where the Convention was not implemented, this process began with an early or child marriage or other violations.  Concerning terminology, Ms. Neubauer indicated that the Committee had recently decided not to use this terms interchangeably. 
 
KATE GILMORE, Deputy Executive Director (Programme) at the United Nations Population Fund, said that the human rights implications of child and forced marriage were significant and grave.  Forced marriage was the thief that robbed a girl of her childhood, her active participation in this world, her exploration and realization of herself in this world.  In child or forced marriage, a girl was more likely to be removed from education, or likely to become pregnant even though her young body was not ready for it.  In developing counties over all, a quarter of adolescent girls that were married or in union lacked opportunity of access to contraceptives and many were victims of sexual violence.  Still births and new-born deaths in the first week of life were 50 per cent higher in babies born to adolescents.
 
POOJA BADARINATH, Programme Coordinator, Advocacy and Research (CREA), said the control over sexual and reproductive rights of young girls and women were some of the root causes of child and forced marriage.  Often, efforts to prevent such marriages did not address root causes and thus had unsatisfactory results.  The impact of child marriage on sexual and reproductive health was quite known.  It was reinforced that the risk of sexual violence was higher for young girls that were forced to get married.  Yet, to date, more than 100 countries did not explicitly criminalize rape within marriage.  Married girls were also at risk of experiencing violence in the form of reproductive coercion.  The central challenge was around consent.  In most countries this was set at 16 to 18 years.  On the other hand, laws on child marriages expected that young girls before the age of 18 would have the autonomy to seek legal assistance.  The assessment of harm should be within the framework for a continuum that started before marriage and continued after it. 
 
SOYATA MAIGA, Special Rapporteur on the rights of women at the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights, described the ways in which the Commission addressed the continuing discriminatory harmful practice of early and forced marriages and said that this issue was regularly invoked in their communication with Member States.  States also sent their periodic reports to the Commission.  The recommendations that the Commission made following the submission of reports was to remove all legislative provisions that discriminated against women and children, change conduct towards women, ensure access to education for girls, raise the age of marriage to 18, include sexual and reproductive health education in school curriculum, enforce birth and marriage registration, and educate religious and community leaders on the harms of early and forced marriages.  Ms. Maiga stressed that a comprehensive approach was needed, so in addition to legislative measures, there were legal education programmes available for the youth, livelihood support for girls was being made available and there were measures to support employment of educated young women, for example through the use of quotas.  Finally, Ms. Maiga said that an all-African campaign had been launched in May 2014 to mobilize everyone to fight against early and forced marriages.
 
AYMAN SADEK, Upper Egypt Programme Area Manager, Plan International, said that Plan International was committed to combatting early and child marriages not only as a developmental problem but as a human rights violation.  The global campaign “Because I am a Girl campaign” was designed to promote their rights and sought impact on a large scale.  In Egypt, despite the legislative amendments, 23 per cent of girls were married before the age of 18 and child marriage was an age-old tradition entrenched in culture.  This practice was also related to female genital mutilation and drop out from school.  There was a need to increase awareness about the harmful consequences of this practice in the community.  Programmes in Egypt showed that essential to the success of programmes addressing early and child marriage was the involvement of men and boys and of traditional leaders and the clergy. 
 
NYARADZAYI GUMBONZVANDA, African Union Goodwill Ambassador for the Campaign to End Child Marriage, said that the issue was personal to her in many ways.  It was an issue about life, families, communities, broken dreams and shattered bodies; about girls at risk of marriage; just as much as it was about the millions of adolescent mothers and girls in marriage.  It was about the 276 Nigerian girls from Chibok, who had yet to be rescued.  It was an issue of responsibility and accountability for all, and a deeper calling to respect the essence of human rights.  Child, early and forced marriage was the nexus of household poverty, violence against women, and abuse and misuse of cultures, traditions and religions; it was an issue of gender inequalities.  Member States should address the underlying causes of child, early and forced marriage, including feminization of household poverty.  Steps to be taken included harmonising the age of marriage with the legal age of majority; facilitating civil registration of births and marriages; ensuring greater investment in education for girls; promoting young women’s leadership and empowerment; as well as building peaceful communities and ending conflicts.  Political, financial and technical investment and community resources to end child, early and forced marriage were also called for.  With collective efforts, it would be possible to end child marriage within a single generation. 
 
Discussion
 
Ethiopia, speaking on behalf of the African Group, concurred that child, early and forced marriage had a strong co-relation with poverty.  The African Group recognised that it undermined the well-being of women and young girls and was an obstacle to other human rights.  A campaign to end early and child marriage in Africa had been launched.  European Union said it was high time to reverse the trend of child, early and forced marriage, a human rights violation that affected not only women and girls but affected generations to come.  It was also worrying that they were subjected to violence and sexual violence.  The European Union sought to eliminate cultural norms that allowed forced marriage.
 
Austria, speaking on behalf of a group of States, said that there were still too many women and girls affected by the often long standing and wide ranging consequences of child, early and forced marriage.  These harmful practices robbed them of their childhood and limited their education and opportunities in life.  The importance of addressing root causes was emphasized.  Norway, speaking on behalf of the Nordic Countries, said that child, early and forced marriage had deep impacts on health, education and productivity.  The consequences were well documented and recognized, however this harmful practice continued.  Comprehensive and coordinated approaches were needed and underlying causes had to be addressed.   
 
Costa Rica, speaking on behalf of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, said that the involvement of the Human Rights Council in the ongoing discussions on the post-2015 development agenda was crucial to ensure that child, early and forced marriage were seen from a human rights perspective.  Egypt, speaking on behalf of the Arab Group, said that appropriate legislation setting the age for marriage was essential.  Increased awareness with the participation of civil society would be of great assistance.  This phenomenon must not be linked to a specific cultural or religious context.  Canada was working with a cross-regional group to end early and child marriage which achieved greater commitment to end this practice.  Leadership was needed to translate this commitment into concrete and sustained actions to ensure protection and empowerment for the 14 million girls affected by child, early and forced marriages every year. 
 
United Nations Children Fund said if the international community was to end early and child marriage in one generation, there was a need for sustainable programmes, owned and supported by key stakeholders in communities and countries.  Montenegro firmly believed in the importance of addressing the factors underlying child, early and forced marriage and remained concerned about the adverse consequences of those practices.  Montenegro asked about positive practices in removing obstacles to education and employment for women victims of this practice.  Spain said child, early or forced marriages were among the most harmful, cruel and painful practices which disproportionately affected girls; they were a form of slavery, torture and cruel treatment, a form of sexual exploitation and forced labour which perpetuated the vicious cycle of poverty.  Malaysia said that it was important to understand why child, early and forced marriage existed in today’s societies in the first place, and blamed poverty, lack of education, and cultural and religious practices, among other reasons.  Belgium criminalized forced marriage, including attempts to force a marriage, and there were legal sanctions for forced or coerced cohabitation.
 
Save the Children International said child marriage had far reaching negative effects for girls, including removal of the right to education, and moving away from family and friends, leading to social and psychological isolation.  Education played a key role in reducing child marriage.  There was a need to work to strengthen the legal framework around child marriage and to end impunity.  National Council of Human Rights of Morocco said that the number of girls that were being married every year was of concern and a challenge for the country, in terms of the rights of the child.  The Council had redoubled efforts to put an end to this scourge and it was working on a project to amend discriminatory dispositions of the Family Code.  Plan International said child marriage was a serious violation of human rights and not just a barrier to development.  It had multiple causes and impacts, requiring a comprehensive approach.  It was possible to end child marriage within a generation if there was sufficient political will and action.  Education was also key.
 
SOYATA MAIGA, Special Rapporteur on the rights of women at the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights, said the challenge in eliminating the practice and the reason why it continued was that women had a very weak legal status within the family and community, as did children.  Existing legislation was not implemented and there could also be co-existence of different sources of law within a country, as well as an absence of penalties.  However there were initiatives being undertaken, such as by the African Union and the Pretoria Human Rights Centre, which looked at root causes, existing legislation and regulations to then formulate plans of action and awareness raising campaigns, essential in formulating targeted solutions. 
 
AYMAN SADEK, Upper Egypt Programme Area Manager, Plan International, responding to a question concerning successful practices, drew attention to the role of awareness raising campaigns among girls and provided an example from Egypt in which a girl who had suffered from female genital mutilation had brought attention to the dangers of child marriage with the support of her family.  Families could also carry out door to door visits in order to educate other families about the risks of child and early marriages, and some areas had been declared free of child or early marriage.  It had been possible to engage more people and a working group had been set up to inform people about the risks of early marriage.  Furthermore, more instances of early marriages were being reported.
 
POOJA BADARINATH, Programme Coordinator, Advocacy and Research (CREA), provided examples from grassroots efforts in which girls were asked about their aspirations, noting that there were a number of aspects beyond education.  Research in India showed that an important number of young people did not have the relevant training in practical skills.  For girls, particularly in the context of education, counting with separate toilets and adequate sanitary facilities was also important.  Among the girls who had managed to negotiate marrying at an older age had been those empowered by sexual education, which delayed sexual activity and promoted safer sexual practices.  Prevention depended on the dissemination of evidence based information.
 
VIOLETTA NEUBAUER, Chair of the Working Group on Harmful Practices, Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, said that appropriate measures meant measures which brought results and achieved the purpose for which they had been introduced.  When it came to early and forced marriages, very comprehensive strategies were needed, tailored to specific country and local contexts.  An adequate coordination and monitoring system should be created in each such situation after legislation had set the minimum age for marriage for both women and men.  Exceptions could be authorized by tribunals only with the full and free consent of the girls involved.  Marriages made under coercion should be void or annulled, but the difficult situation of the woman afterwards had to be taken into consideration.
 
YVETTE STEVENS, Permanent Representative of Sierra Leone to the United Nations Office at Geneva and Panel Moderator, said that there was a risk that early and forced marriage might be dropped out from the list of post-2015 sustainable goals.
 
KATE GILMORE, Deputy Executive Director (Programme) at the United Nations Population Fund, said that a political denunciation of the practice and a systematic approach were the solution.  When parents and communities understood the harmful consequences of child marriage for their girls, things could change.  Any progress began with political will; laws had to be boosted by an environment of culture for human rights and community awareness.  One could not be old enough to be married but not to have access to health care or pertinent information on reproductive and sexual health.  Investments had to be made in girl-centred programmes.  Given the pivot-point opportunity with the highest number of adolescents ever, States ought to recognize and seize the current opportunity.
 
Israel said that significant challenges remained in the adoption of legislative and other measures to prohibit child and forced marriages.  Last November, Israel had raised legal marriage from 17 to 18 years and Israel urged all States to establish 18 years of age as the legal age to marry.   United States said that this profound challenge required the involvement of the Council and stressed that early, child and forced marriage was a form of sexual slavery and trafficking in persons.  Republic of Congo was seriously concerned about the practice of early, child and forced marriage which was ingrained in some cultures and often happened because of economic gain for the families.  The Republic of Congo was addressing this scourge by prevention, taking care of the victims and empowerment.  France accorded particular attention to child marriages and said that their elimination was an ethical principle and an issue of fundamental rights.   France had amended its Civil Code to end child marriage by setting the legal age to marry at 18 for boys and girls.  Italy said that the ongoing discussion on the post-2015 agenda was an opportunity to address early, child and forced marriages as a human rights issue and to include a stand-alone objective on gender equality in the new agenda.  Italy asked about best ways to include religious leaders in the fight to eliminate this practice.
 
Netherlands said that the overwhelming number of sponsors in the resolution leading to this panel illustrated the call for the Council to remained engaged.  Real change would come from a shift in the thinking about women and girls and their rights.  Ensuring sexual rights, including full access to contraceptives and abortions, were essential to addressing early pregnancies, as well as child marriages.  Honduras said that some of the greatest challenges included poverty, marginalisation, traditional practices, and education.  These could be tackled by recognising the causes and generating statistics to identify problems and set out public and private actions and solid public policy.  Estonia said that the report listed a number of negative consequences of child marriages, including violence within the family and difficulties associated with early pregnancies; all children should be provided with an opportunity to access uninterrupted education and women’s empowerment and control about their lives should be promoted.
                      
United Kingdom said that this practice constituted an abuse of girls’ human rights and more action was needed at the national and international level, and supported both a stand-alone goal as well as the mainstreaming of women and girls’ rights in the post-2015 development goals.  The United Kingdom was implementing measures, such as criminalising the practice and commended the African Union’s new campaign.  Iran said that child and forced marriages deprived girls of their basic human rights and that its legislation provided for different aspects of protection for children and adolescents.  Early and unprotected sexual activities led to a number of negative aspects, ranging from physical to psychological effects. 
 
Angola was fully aware that early and child marriage was linked to a full range of health and societal problems.  Angola was committed to the promotion and protection of gender equalities and eliminating any harmful practices that might negatively affect girls.  Early marriage might still be happening in some parts of Angola.  Promoting girls’ access to high-quality education was a resource which helped fight the problem of early and child marriage.  Syria said that it had set the age of marriage at 17 for women and 18 for men, and exceptions could be made only with free consent.  Marriage of children for financial gains was criminalized in Syria.  The Government of Syria was working to fully eliminate forced and early marriages, which could be happening due to customs in rural areas or in poor refugee settlements.  Centre for Reproductive Rights believed that the scourge of child marriage further perpetuated prejudice and discrimination.  It often led to early pregnancies, sexual violence, and virtual enslavement.  In many countries in Asia, laws codified harmful practices and customs.  Putting in place an effective legal framework along with an accountability mechanism was of paramount importance.
 
Sudwind Entwicklungspolitik called on States to increase the age of marriage to 18 for both boys and girls and also to emphasize that child marriages could not be justified on traditional, religious, cultural or economic grounds.  British Humanist Association thanked the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights for their continued effort to combat early, child and forced marriage and said that despite of the legislation, there remained gaps in the implementation in a number of countries. 
 
Closing Remarks
 
AYMAN SADEK, Upper Egypt Programme Area Manager, Plan International, in his closing remarks said that there was a relation between early, child and forced marriages and other harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation and girls drop outs from schools.  Those were often the result of the societal pressure by family and neighbours.  It was important that there was a roadmap in place and that all leaders were involved; positive models were also useful to amplify the efforts.  The participation of children and young girls was crucial and no change would happen otherwise.  Equally important was the involvement of men and boys, without whom genuine change would not occur.
 
POOJA BADARINATH, Programme Coordinator, Advocacy and Research (CREA), in her closing remarks said that early, child and forced marriages was a child right issue and should be also framed in larger human rights issues.  The Council should look into criminalizing marital rape in all countries and should also promote the inclusion of comprehensive sexual and reproductive education in education. 
 
SOYATA MAIGA, Special Rapporteur on the rights of women at the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights, in closing remarks said that the panel had noted very important inputs.  It was a long-term task to achieve a better world for children and women.  There was an African proverb: “If you want to go far, you need to be together.”  Beyond a vision, there was a need for synergy, strategy and action.  Resources were also needed, as were educational programmes, awareness-raising and mobilization.  Non-governmental organizations, civil society and Governments had to be drawn in.  Every effort had to be made to keep the issue on the post-2015 development agenda.  The question of justice and rule of law was very important too and all efforts had to be bolstered by international input. 
 
VIOLETTA NEUBAUER, Chair of the Working Group on Harmful Practices, Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, in closing remarks felt obliged to respond to the question in relation to the time frame of adoption of the joint Committee on the Rights of the Child and Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women General Recommendation and Comment on the elimination of harmful practices.  The two Working Groups had planned that it should be adopted by the two Committees this year.  However this was a first exercise, in Geneva, that the two treaty bodies were jointly working on one general recommendation.  It was very difficult to finalize the text intercessionally, without being able to sit together and negotiate the potentially conflicting issues.    On how to keep Member States accountable for violating rights through child, early and forced marriages, this could be done through the human rights instruments under which they had agreed to realize the rights enshrined in these treaties.  The importance of education was also emphasised.  Rights should be ensured in and through education. 
 
KATE GILMORE, Deputy Executive Director (Programme) at the United Nations Population Fund, expressed appreciation for the leadership of the Human Rights Council on this matter.  Child marriage reminded everyone that human rights violations occurred in the most intimate of places.  The Human Rights Council’s insistence to go wherever human rights violations occurred was thus essential.  There should be no false separations between human rights, peace and development.  Human rights should be at the heart of the post-2015 development agenda.  Adolescents had to be kept in secondary schools and given access to life skills and sexual and reproductive health services.  There had to be no silence on sexual violence and sexual health, while gender equity had to be upheld before the law and through the rule of law.  It was easy to measure progress on child marriage. 
 
YVETTE STEVENS, Permanent Representative of Sierra Leone to the United Nations Office at Geneva and Panel Moderator, stressed that it came out very clear from the discussions that child and early marriage was a human rights issue, and the Council had to remain engaged on that issue.  While political will was important, laws, education and health systems were all needed.  Those were all necessary ingredients of a comprehensive approach.  There was a lot of work which still needed to be accomplished. Initiatives from different sides were welcome, for which success of everybody’s support was needed.
 
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