Header image for news printout

“Let Girls be Girls”: Joining efforts to eliminate harmful practices

Statement by Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

Geneva, 14 January 2020

Minister Ulstein,
Distinguished fellow panellists,
Colleagues, friends,

I thank Norway for its launch of a new International Strategy to eliminate harmful practices, which negatively impact the lives, health and fundamental human rights of millions of girls and women.

Practices such as female genital mutilation; so-called "honour" crimes; dowry-related killings and violence; child, early and forced marriages; so-called “virgin rapes”; bride kidnapping; customary abuses of widows; virginity tests; and polygamous marriage are widespread and profoundly damaging human rights abuses.

More than 650 million women alive today were married as children. In least developed countries, 40 % of girls continue to be married before age 18, 12 % before the age of 15. More than 200 million girls and women alive today have been subjected to female genital mutilation, which can not only kill, but may also create lifelong pain and trauma. 44 million of those girls and women are under the age of 15.

These practises rob girls of fundamental rights: the right to life, in many cases; the right to physical integrity and to health; the right to decide if, when and whom to marry.

Recent decades have seen a rising global consensus about the need to step up efforts to put an end to harmful practices.

In adopting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, States reaffirmed their commitment to “eliminate all harmful practices, such as child marriage and female genital mutilations.” In many countries we have seen a reduction in these practises – with significant positive impact on education and freedoms for women and girls.

But the progress that has been made is far from comprehensive. Particularly in poor communities, and in situations of insecurity, discriminatory social norms continue to restrict women’s roles and impose control of their bodies, contributing to the maintenance of these practises.

My Office has repeatedly seen that child marriage is particularly common in rural areas, and in the poorest communities – where it is often perceived as a way to ensure the economic subsistence of girls and women who have no access to productive resources of their own. In this context, parents may view practises such as child marriage and female genital mutilation as tactics to make their daughters more marriageable, and thus give both the child and her parents a path to greater wealth – or even just survival.

We have also repeatedly seen humanitarian crises leading to increased child, forced and early marriage, with heightened fears of sexual assault activating the underlying perception that it may permanently damage the family's honour.

Studies also indicate that in situations of rising violence, girls are frequently the first to be pulled out of school – for security reasons. Limited education, coupled with increased confinement at home, leads to the perception that daughters can become a financial burden, and early marriage could provide them with protection and financial stability.

To tackle harmful practises successfully requires us to address all these factors – both the underlying discriminatory stereotypes about girls and women, and the economic, social and political conditions which contribute to activating those stereotypes. The adoption of legislation can indeed be very useful – and there has been quite a lot of focus in recent years on adopting laws to ban female genital mutilation and child marriage. Strong laws, properly and fairly implemented, can be effective in preventing harmful practices and ensuring remedy for victims, but they are not sufficient.

It is vital to invest in lifting communities out of poverty and ensure girls’ access to quality education. We need to remove obstacles – including discriminatory legislation – that block women's access to land and other productive resources, and equal rights to inheritance. And we need well-funded, comprehensive work that is anchored in local realities to change the social norms that underpin the abuse of women and girls.

I want to pay tribute to the remarkably successful life-long efforts of Bogaletch Gebre.  She was an Ethiopian activist we had the honour to work with, who sadly, died two months ago. Her work in Kembatta, Ethiopia sharply reduced the practise of abducting and raping young women to force them into marriage, as well as the practise of mutilating girls' genitals. As a local activist, she knew how to reshape minds: as she said, "I am from them. I speak from reality. I touch their reality.”

In the Gambia, Jaha Dukureh – a survivor of genital mutilation and child marriage – has become another lightning-rod for massive and life-transforming change. One by one, she helped to modify the convictions of local and religious leaders, drawing them in to a broad-based movement that has culminated in government bans on both child marriage and FGM.

This is not about imposing new norms from outside. These activists and human rights defenders seek to free their fellow girls and women from harm, in communities that they understand and love, for the benefit of all. Norway's new strategy can have real impact in helping local activists like these women. We're not talking about imposing new norms from outside: we're talking about working to support women who seek to free each other from harm, in communities that they understand and love, for the benefit of all.

I want to emphasize this point: as we address these harmful practices, it is important to avoid stigmatizing the communities that practice them. For as horrendous and damaging as these practices are, they are often perceived as the only option to ensure girls can survive.

Recently, in Nairobi, I heard a Roma woman talk about her father's refusal to let her study and his insistence she should get married very young. Initially she resented him; later, she understood that in a context of marginalization and poverty, he was trying to protect her. Also, in view of her success, he ultimately admitted he had been wrong, and changed his mind.

Minds do change, and I encourage all actors to work together with local activists and women rights defenders to help change them. It is they who are the experts. This year my Office will organize two regional workshops on child and forced marriage, to discuss precisely how we can ensure that our common struggle against these practices is both successful and sustainable, without over-reliance on prohibition or criminalization, and emphasising promotion of the rights and choices of women and girls on the ground.

Norway's new strategy plans a comprehensive, long-term effort to tackle a broad range of root causes, working to advance gender equality, education, health care, better laws and social norms.  I welcome this profoundly important initiative.

Thank you.