Too much, too young

Ashley Johnson

The Royal Commonwealth Society and Plan believe their campaign to end forced marriage provides a good example of how the Commonwealth could reclaim its global moral leadership. 

Early and forced marriage discriminates against girls and takes away their opportunities to access education, often excluding them from paid work and meaningful participation in the development of their communities. Affecting millions of girls in every region of the Commonwealth, it often represents a truly brutal transition from childhood to adulthood. 

The issue of early and forced marriage should be placed firmly in the context of its impact on economic empowerment, education, maternal health, gender equality and human rights across the Commonwealth.

It is a practice affecting 10 million girls each year: one in three girls in the developing world is married by the age of 18; one in seven marries before they reach their 15th birthday. Ending early and forced marriage is a prerequisite to the successful delivery of a number of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), especially those dealing with infant and maternal health, universal primary education, gender equality and empowerment and eradicating poverty. 

‘Because You’re a Girl: Growing Up in the Commonwealth’, a report published by the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS) and the child development NGO Plan in March 2011, highlighted the most important barriers to the empowerment of girls. The negative impact on education from early and forced marriage was one of the greatest. Findings by the International Center for Research on Women show that girls’ education is “the most important factor associated with child marriage”. Their research reveals that in Mozambique some 60 percent of girls with no education are married by the time they are 18, compared to 10 percent with secondary schooling and less than 1 percent with higher education. 

Of the 20 countries in the world where early and forced marriage is most prevalent, 12 are in the Commonwealth. Add to that the Commonwealth’s 2011 theme, ‘Women as Agents of Change’, and calls by the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) for the Commonwealth to become a much more adept champion of human rights, and it seems clear that the time is ripe for the Commonwealth to act on this issue. 

The RCS and Plan hope that leaders will use the opportunity presented by the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth, Australia, to condemn early and forced marriage. The power of the Commonwealth’s collective voice to influence global norms should not be underestimated.

We will also call upon leaders to honour the international human rights commitments they have made by strengthening the position of the Commonwealth on this damaging obstacle to girls’ education and empowerment. 

The joint campaign, ‘Ending Forced Marriage, Empowering Girls’, received an early boost when delegates meeting at July’s Commonwealth Law Ministers Summit in Sydney recognised forced and servile marriages as “a human rights violation that impeded individuals’ most basic and fundamental rights” and called for concerted Commonwealth action to end the practice. 

After lobbying a number of Common-wealth governments and institutions and participating in civil society engagement processes, the RCS and Plan will arrive in Australia with support not only from the Commonwealth Law Ministers, but also helpful language on gender equality included in the EPG’s preliminary report. To strengthen the campaign in Perth, the RCS and Plan will host a series of bilateral meetings, a breakfast for key policy-makers and an event as part of the People’s Forum, focusing on the Commonwealth’s role in protecting and promoting human rights. 

If heads of government are looking for a way to turn the EPG’s recommendations into realistic programmatic work and, by the same token, prove that the Commonwealth can become a much sharper tool for the promotion of human rights, they now have an opportunity to do so. 

Given the cross-cutting nature of early and forced marriage’s impact on gender, education, economic participation and empowerment, action on this issue would enable Commonwealth heads of government to make tangible progress in a number of priority areas: achieving the MDGs and the Commonwealth objectives relating to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, and meaningfully engaging with the ‘Women as Agents of Change’ theme. 

Along with making new commitments to improve access to education and the rights of women and girls, leaders should mandate the Secretariat to provide the technical assistance that will be needed to harmonise national legal frameworks in compliance with international standards. This issue must also find its way on to the agendas of upcoming Commonwealth Ministerial meetings – such as the Education Ministers Meeting in August 2012 – to ensure policy and action areas are coordinated. 

Because of the deeply ingrained beliefs about marriage, girls’ honour, tradition and culture, tackling early and forced marriage across the Commonwealth won’t be easy. But if leaders don’t act now, the emerging global consensus on the need to eliminate this practice will leave the Commonwealth behind. And the last thing this association needs is to reinforce already widespread perceptions that it is powerless to act on the most pressing issues of our time. 

Any successful attempt at Commonwealth reform will need to be oriented firmly around a recommitment to core Commonwealth values and principles, including the realisation of basic human rights. Implicit Commonwealth acceptance of cultural relativism is simply not an option. The EPG, the RCS and Plan are giving Commonwealth heads of government an opportunity. Let’s hope they seize it. 

About the author:

Ashley Johnson is Communications Assistant at the Royal Commonwealth Society


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November 11, 2011 4:16 pm

This change has taken a long time. Stopping forced and early marriage should help to boost literacy rates and be a huge change to basic human rights but what are the other contributing factors? Will parents send girls to school because they can’t marry them off early or will they follow their tradition by keeping girls at home to run the household or learn skills to help them run their future homes? I think governments are underestimating what it will take to alter a cultures deeply ingrained beliefs. It took around 100 years to ban foot-binding in China and that was a deforming ritual.

November 11, 2011 11:15 pm

Do not forget it happens in the UK too & the critical issue is the educational level of the parent not the daughter.

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