Tag Archives: UNICEF

11 Tuesday, March 2014

Girls’ stories get to the heart of the matter

In June, leaders from around the globe will gather for the 26th session of the Human Rights Council to discuss the ills of child, early and forced marriage and to share suggestions for ending the practice.

--- UNOG Library/ Coralie Chappat The Too Young to Wed exhibit is on display at the United Nations office in Geneva, Switzerland, just in time for the Human Rights Council's 25th session.
— UNOG Library/ Coralie Chappat
The Too Young to Wed exhibit is on display at the United Nations office in Geneva, Switzerland, just in time for the Human Rights Council’s 25th session.

No doubt, they’ll be armed with plenty of data that describe the scope of the problem: 39,000 young girls are forced into marriage each day. That’s roughly one child bride every 2 seconds. And at that rate, the UNFPA projects another 142 million more girls may be victimized by the practice by 2020.

The numbers are staggering, but the personal stories of the girls get to the heart of the matter. Girls like Tehani, who was 6 when her 25-year-old husband pressed his hand over her mouth to muffle her screams and then raped her.

Or Ghulam, whose dreams of becoming a teacher were dashed at the age of 11 when she was pulled from school to marry a 40-year-old man. Or Asia, who at 14 cared for her 2-year-old and a newborn, all while still ill and bleeding from childbirth.

For those girls, child marriage is much more than a statistical problem. It’s a miserable, life-threatening, heartbreaking reality—one that is on full display at the Too Young to Wed exhibit at the United Nations office in Geneva, Switzerland.

The traveling collection of photographs by VII photographer Stephanie Sinclair and videos by VII photographer Jessica Dimmock arrived at the UN’s Palais des Nations just in time for the 25th session of the Human Rights Council. They’ll remain on display until Friday, March 14, in an effort to raise the profile of child marriage in advance of the June session.

Though child marriage wasn’t on the agenda for the March meeting, scores of people packed into the gallery last week for a panel discussion on the topic that included Yemen’s Minister of Human Rights Hooria Mashhour, Italy’s Undersecretary of State Benedetto Della Vedova and Canada’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Lynne Yelich, among other dignitaries and human rights advocates. But one panelist in particular seemed to capture the hearts of those in the room: Enerstrida Mirriam Michelo.

--- UNOG Library/ Coralie Chappat Enerstrida Mirriam Michelo, center, was 9 when her parents first began to discuss her marriage. She shared her story during a panel discussion on child marriage at the Human Rights Council's 25th session last week.
— UNOG Library/ Coralie Chappat
Enerstrida Mirriam Michelo, center, was 9 when her parents first began to discuss her marriage. She shared her story during a panel discussion on child marriage at the Human Rights Council’s 25th session last week.

Mirriam, as she is known, was 9 when her parents first started talking about marrying her off to an older widower—with three kids of his own—in her native Zambia. By the time she was 13, her parents had pulled her out of school and locked her away, so she could focus on learning the skills she’d need as a wife. When she resisted, she was beaten.

“Even though I was beaten, I never gave up because I knew that without education, my life [would] be something else,” said Mirriam, who managed to send a letter to one of her former teachers pleading for help.

Her teacher and brother approached the police and the YWCA, who freed Mirriam so she could continue her education. Still, there was a price. The shame associated with having refused a marriage meant that her family had to leave their village, she told the crowd in Geneva. And though she desperately wanted to study nursing, she lacked the money for school.

So she’d avoided child marriage, but her future remained uncertain. While the crowd sat silently, trying to absorb the full impact of Mirriam’s story, UNFPA Executive Director Babatunde Osotimehin took the microphone and offered Mirriam a full scholarship to nursing school, courtesy of the UNFPA.

The crowd stood and applauded. Mirriam wept.

In three months, many of these same policymakers will gather for the next Human Rights Council session, where child marriage will be a central issue. We hope as they debate the best way to end the practice that they’ll remember Mirriam’s story: her anguish, her uncertainty and ultimately, her joy.

But we also hope they’ll remember the haunting images of Tehani, Ghulam and Asia, and the tragedy endured by millions of girls just like them around the globe, girls whose stories don’t have a happy ending—yet.


Too Young to Wed is extraordinarily grateful to the following partners who helped sponsor the exhibition in Geneva: VII Photo Agency, UNFPA, UNICEF, WHO, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the African Union, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Girls Not Brides, Plan International, the World YWCA and the governments of Canada, Ethiopia, Finland, Honduras, Italy, the Netherlands, Sierra Leone, Switzerland, Uruguay and Yemen.

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7 Wednesday, August 2013

Child marriage debated in Nigeria

A recent review of the Nigerian constitution has inadvertently sparked controversy over child marriage in the West African country.

The constitution allows Nigerians to renounce their citizenship if they’ve reached “full age,” defined as 18 or older. It further states “Any woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age.”

A committee tasked with reviewing the document recommended repealing the second provision, but Senator Ahmed Yerima insisted that would discriminate against Muslim women, who he said are considered adults at marriage no matter their age.

A family in Bagega, Zamfara State, Nigeria. Photo © Marcus Bleasdale / VII.
A family in Bagega, Zamfara State, Nigeria. Photo © Marcus Bleasdale / VII.

The resulting debate over Section 29(4)(b) has put the legality of child marriage squarely in the spotlight, with many claiming that leaving the clause in the country’s constitution legitimizes the practice even though Nigerian law sets the minimum age of marriage at 18 (only 23 of its 36 states have adopted that law).

Yerima’s been here before, causing widespread controversy in 2010 when he married a 13-year-old Egyptian girl.

Egypt—where a new TV series tackles the issue of child marriage—would not sign off on the union, but the Nigerian senator managed to get it approved in his own country, where criticism has dogged him ever since.

A recent blog post by Girls Not Brides does a good job of explaining the issue, which is far from resolved.

On the victory front, UNICEF reports that its Child Protection Action Network (CPAN) is having success in curbing child marriage in Afghanistan. This article highlights the case of a 10-year-old girl who was scheduled to marry a 50-year-old man before local officials intervened.

It’s unlikely that the 10-year-old Afghan girl and the 13-year-old Egyptian ever knew each other. But the common denominator in their cases appears to be money.

Yerima reportedly paid his Egyptian driver $100,000 to marry the man’s daughter. In Afghanistan, the 10-year-old’s father, who was struggling to feed his children on $30/month, accepted $9,000 from a wealthy man in exchange for his daughter’s hand.

A local religious leader and member of CPAN who intervened on the 10-year-old’s behalf cited financial problems and misunderstandings about Islamic law as the leading causes of child marriage in his community.

“One of the main reasons for child marriage is poverty, and that forces parents to agree to early marriage,” explained Sultan Mohammad Yusufzai. “The second reason is low awareness amongst families about Islamic principles and human rights.”

Likely, those same issues had more than a little to do with Yerima’s wedding three years ago.

No matter the country, no matter the constitution, no matter the religion, girls ought not be bought and sold.

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5 Tuesday, March 2013

Sign up by midnight March 6th to end child marriage

The UN Commission on the Status of Women is meeting this week and next in New York City, and though you might not be able to attend any of the events in person, you can still be part of the action.

The World YWCA plans to submit a petition Thursday urging the commission to adopt a special resolution to end child marriage by 2030, and your name can be on it—we hope alongside thousands of others. The timing couldn’t be better, coming only a day before International Women’s Day.

The petition essentially urges the commission to invest in educational, economic and legislative efforts that empower girls and ultimately help wipe out the practice of child marriage within one generation.

Portrait of Said, 55, and Roshan, 8, on the day of their engagement in Afghanistan. Photo © Stephanie Sinclair / VII

Sign today — the petition closes at midnight on March 6, 2013! 

It’s a lofty goal, for sure. But with 14.2 million girls a year at risk of being married off as children, it’s one worth fighting for. Globally, it’s estimated that one in three women between the ages of 20 and 24 was married before her 18th birthday—and 12 percent were wed before turning 15.

The long-term, negative consequences go far, far beyond simply cutting short the childhoods of these girls. Girls who marry young are far less likely to continue their education, hampering their futures and severely limiting their ability to contribute financially to their families and communities. That, in turn, perpetuates the cycle of poverty in many regions of the world.

Girls who marry young are likely to be subjected to physical and sexual violence from husbands many years their senior. Girls who marry young often become pregnant young, before their bodies are ready to withstand the rigors of pregnancy and delivery. That greatly increases their risk of death or injury during childbirth, as well as the risk to their own children. In fact, complications from pregnancy or childbirth are the leading cause of death for girls ages 15 to 19 in developing countries.

Focusing on the child marriage issue helps us address a number of the world’s ills all at once: poverty, disease, violence, infant and maternal mortality, and gender discrimination just to name a few. Likewise, because child marriage is at the heart of so many of society’s problems, it’ll take a concerted effort by a broad cross-section of society to deal with it.

The Commission on the Status of Women is certainly a good place to start. It’s the UN’s primary policy-making body dedicated exclusively to advancing the cause of women and gender equality. Every year, representatives from its member states meet to examine progress, identify challenges and adopt strategies associated with its stated goals. This year, the series of meetings taking place this week and next are focused largely on acts of violence against women and girls—of which child marriage is clearly one.

Fauza sits naked while waiting for new dressings to be put on her burns. Photo © Stephanie Sinclair / VII
Fauza sits naked while waiting for new dressings to be put on her burns. Self immolation is commonly thought of as a “solution” for child brides to escape their unhappy lives. Photo © Stephanie Sinclair / VII

Outside the formal workshops, a large number of nonprofits and NGOs are organizing panel discussions covering everything from the role of sports and social media in curbing violence against women to the responsibilities borne by everyone from lawmakers and judges to faith leaders and grassroots groups. Agencies like UNFPA, UNICEF and UN Women are working alongside governmental networks like the Inter-Parliamentary Union and amazing organizations like The Partnership for Maternal Newborn & Child Health, Girls Not Brides and The Elders, WHO, World Vision and YWCA to tackle the problem of child marriage.

Those partnerships are key to developing strategies that end this harmful practice once and for all. Want to join in the effort? You can start by signing YWCA’s petition and adding your voice to thousands of others.

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