SRHR and Forced Child Marriage
The March 17 United Nations CSW65 side event, “We hear you! High Level Side Event on the Margins of the 65th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women: An Intergenerational Dialogue on Child, Early, and Forced Marriage,” was organised by Zambia, Canada, the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fun (UNICEF), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and Save the Children around the concept of listening to the testimonies of young women. There were four women, only identified by their first names, who spoke live, and one from Nepal who submitted a video.
The first to speak was Mariam, a Syrian refugee living in Lebanon. She is sixteen years old and was a child bride, taken out of school for this purpose since their economic situation was poor. Her husband was unable to support her and she was divorced at the age of fourteen. This is common in Syria, as is domestic abuse, which is underreported out of a sense of shame.
Vanessa spoke next. She is a "feminist and youth rights advocate" from Venezuela. The group she works with attempts to prevent child marriage in Latin America and the Caribbean. They work to raise awareness since the issue is not considered as important. Despite this, there is a great deal of violence and it is worsening. One of the most important things needed is access to education.
Vanessa was the only young speaker to mention "sexual and reproductive health and rights" (SRHR). She insisted that it was urgently needed, stating that mental health support and contraceptives are hard to access, while hidden or secret abortions are rising in areas where it is illegal or hard to access. She said increasing abortion access and other such resources are "key things for our development.” She felt much of their efforts should be focused there.
Rehima spoke next as a member of the children's parliament in Ethiopia. She said that they work to enable children to speak about their rights. They also try to provide effective documentation and strong systems of support within the community. They need to work with children to ensure that they can get the education they need. They are also trying to ensure that law enforcement does work to stop child abuse, including rape. They do their best to promote child rights (and whether she believes that includes SRHR is uncertain).
The next speaker was Soanguimpali, from Burkina Faso. She helps women provide for themselves by teaching them weaving. If they can sell things, they can earn a living without fear of forced marriage. They can also serve as mentors for other young girls. Unfortunately, Soanguimpali has been struggling to teach the girls during the pandemic, because of decreased attendance.
Chandani Kumari Singh from Nepal, who spoke in a video, instructs people on the importance of allowing girls to grow up before marriage and why girls need an education. SRHR was mentioned as a way to "ensure bodily autonomy."
Before and after these testimonies were speeches from the moderators; one was a representative from Zambia, the other was a Canadian, Danny Glenwright, President and CEO of Save the Children Canada. They both encouraged the young girls to ask questions of the government representatives from Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, the United Kingdom, Zambia, the Netherlands, and Lebanon.
Canada’s Glenwright, the UK representative, and the Netherlands representative said much the same things: COVID has made the situation worse. Decreased access to education and worsening economic situations have led to an increase in forced marriage. Last year saw the most cases of child marriage in 20 years. Glenwright insisted more data is needed to raise awareness effectively and that there also needs to be increased access to SRHR. The UK’s Wendy Morton, Minister for the European Neighbourhood and the Americas, Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, supports this viewpoint; the UK has given 38 million pounds to support SRHR, girl’s education, and the end of child marriage. They are using their G7 position to promote these policies and get more girls educated. The lack of SRHR, they felt, must be tackled. The Netherlands representative, Lisa de Pagter, Youth Ambassador for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, Gender Equality and Bodily Autonomy, likewise decried unsafe abortions, and the rise of maternal mortality.
Most of the other representatives—those from Zambia, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, and Lebanon—were more interested in legislation than SRHR it seemed. The first three countries have implemented legislation to criminalize people who force children into marriage, and to keep girls in school. Education is paramount. Lebanon is struggling due to religious opposition. They have no legislation yet. Girls as young as nine could be married there. The government cannot legislate, because marriage is seen as a personal matter under the domain of religious authority. Sierra Leone’s Manty Tarawally, Minister of Gender and Children’s Affairs, may have implicitly referenced SRHR if that is understood to be included in their "national strategy to reduce adolescent pregnancy."
The event was concluded with remarks by UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. If the SDG (sustainable development goal) to eliminate child marriage is to be accomplished by 2030, they will need to work faster. Fore listed four keys needs: 1. To maintain social protective measures like providing cash deposits to keep girls in school. 2. Create legal and policy frameworks and law enforcement. 3. Invest in advice and information from the community since community leaders can influence great change. 4. Fully fund and upscale health care and counselling to support girls who are already victims of forced marriage. (The implication was that SRHR is included in this demand.)
With the exception of Vanessa, it seemed that the Western speakers placed more importance on SRHR than the other speakers. The speakers from the countries actually struggling with child marriage seemed more concerned with economics, education, legislation, and enforcement. This position seems reasonable as it is the lack of these things which keeps young girls in jeopardy.
Our entire CLC delegation continues to monitor various events at the UN's CSW65 and will continue bringing you reports of all that is happening.