Human Rights Council 26th Session
23 June 2014
Salle XX, Palais des Nations
Ladies and gentlemen,
I am very pleased to open this panel discussion on early, child and forced marriages. At the outset, let me say – again – that I object to the characterisation of these abusive practices as “marriages”. These practices affect girls and women disproportionally and violate their rights. If present trends continue, it is estimated that 142 million girls will be married off before their 18th birthday by 2020 : 39,000 every day.
The UN Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery provides grants to assist victims of such early and forced marriages. And our collective experience demonstrates that the problem is not insurmountable: solutions exist to address root causes. Advocates and practitioners say that focused work in partnerships from local communities to the highest levels of government and civil society, can end child marriage in one generation.
Child marriage is rooted in unequal gender status and power relations that can result in the perpetual subjugation of girls and women. In the absence of viable legal remedies, discriminatory cultural practices based on stereotypical views of women’s roles and sexuality are among the structural causes of child and forced marriage. Parents may feel that early marriage is a way to prevent pre-marital relations that would bring dishonour to the family, and that if they resist they will be subjected to severe social pressure. Poverty and insecurity are other key contributing factors, since marriage is often perceived as a way to ensure the safety, and economic subsistence, of girls and women.
In reality, child marriage and early childbearing create significant obstacles to employment, education and other opportunities for girls and young women. The often wide age and power differentials between brides and husbands further undermine the agency and autonomy of girls and young women. The result is exposure to physical, psychological, economic and sexual violence; forced labour; so-called “honour” crimes; domestic slavery; and restrictions on their movement. Moreover, child, early and forced marriage is associated with a range of poor health outcomes, including early and frequent pregnancies and forced continuation of pregnancy – all of which are closely linked to high rates of death, for both the young mothers and their infant children.
UN human rights treaty bodies and mechanisms have clearly articulated the legal obligations of States regarding marriage, under international human rights law. Both parties must be at least 18 years old, and both must give free and full consent to the union. States are required by international law to prohibit harmful practices, including child and forced marriage, and should ensure criminal penalties for violation of the law, as well as remedy for victims.
In preparing the report on early, child and forced marriage that our Office submitted to this session of the Council, we received an overwhelming number of submissions highlighting promising practices. Allow me to summarize some of the lessons learned from ongoing efforts. Strategies must be developed and implemented with the full involvement of civil society organizations, women’s groups, religious and community leaders, national human rights institutions and relevant government departments. They should be guided by the best interests of the child, and should be aligned with international human rights standards. They should promote girls’ access to quality education – including tailored re-integration programs for girls who have been forced to drop out due to marriage or childbirth. Incentive and support payments for school attendance have also proven to be effective in enabling girls to pursue higher education and delay marriage.
Other key points include the use of data analysis to identify communities in which girls are at high risk of child, early and forced marriage. This can enable targeted action to promote women’s economic empowerment, and other prevention and protection measures. Platforms that offer opportunities for discussion within communities and families, on the benefits of delaying marriage and ensuring girls’ education, can be effective in challenging cultural and social support for the practice. There should also be comprehensive, age-appropriate, culturally relevant education for women and girls regarding sexuality, sexual and reproductive health and rights, gender equality, and life-skills training.
Women and girls should be empowered to recognize and exercise their rights in relation to marriage. Technologically based networks can facilitate dialogue between girls and young women, by creating virtual “safe spaces” for discussion, to help them to become activists for change.
Child, early and forced marriage can have extensive and damaging repercussions on the women and girls who are subjected to it, their communities, and future generations. Eliminating these practices is of fundamental importance in moving forward the agendas on the rights of women and girls, and development. I welcome the Council’s continued attention to this important cross-cutting issue, and its place in the discussions on the post 2015 development agenda. I hope that all States will swiftly implement the recommendations made in the OHCHR report, and I look forward to your discussions.