By Christina Piaia and Emilia Vasella, 2y2w team members
The global Girl Summit, hosted by the British government and UNICEF last month in London, was no small affair.
Representatives from 50 different countries along with NGO’s, UN agencies, faith organizations, business and community leaders, and a host of grassroots activists attended the event, pledging to end child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) within a generation. Commitments ranged from financial support for programs dedicated to protecting at-risk girls to legislative efforts designed to prosecute those responsible for the atrocities.
Amid the promises from powerbrokers came a powerful call to action from none other than an 18-year-old Pakistani girl. Farwa Khalil’s parents couldn’t afford her school fees, so they pulled her from classes in the eighth grade, intending to marry her off.
Farwa was lucky. Plans for her marriage were scuttled when an aunt agreed to cover the cost of educating her. Farwa, who wants to become an engineer, has used the years since then to advocate for girls. She participated in the Youth For Change conference just prior to the Girl Summit, then shared with summit participants her own efforts to end child marriage and ensure girls have the same educational and economic opportunities as boys.
“Now it’s your turn,” she challenged the audience during the summit’s opening. “What are you going to do to end child marriage?”
Most of the 600 or so delegates who attended the summit have returned home, and the halls of host Walworth Academy are likely much quieter for it. But Farwa’s question still rings in our ears and should for a good, long time. What are we going to do? British Prime Minister David Cameron himself acknowledged during the event that it’s not enough to pass laws and spend money. Though that’s a decent start, without changing the culture that encourages and permits girls to be treated as chattel, progress will be limited and a long time coming. What’s needed is a clear objective and plenty of grassroots-level follow-through, said Cameron.
“I go to lots of conferences and events and seminars and think tanks and all the rest of it, and sometimes you sit there and you’re not quite sure what you’re trying to achieve,” he told summit participants. “Here, it is absolutely clear about what we are trying to achieve: it is such a simple but noble and good ambition, and that is to outlaw the practices of female genital mutilation and childhood and early forced marriage—to outlaw them everywhere, for everyone within this generation. That is the aim. That is the ambition.”
That kind of change starts with a conversation, uncomfortable though it may be. An abridged version of the Too Young to Wed exhibit accompanied the Girl Summit. The stark images by photographer Stephanie Sinclair have provided heartbreaking evidence in support of the data, and they’ve served as a jumping-off point for many discussions about these issues in recent years.
UNICEF estimates that some 700 million women around the world were married as children, and the UNFPA warns that another 142 million girls face the same fate over the next decade. Roughly 125 million women and girls worldwide are estimated to be living with the consequences of female genital mutilation. Those numbers are almost inconceivable. But the faces of the girls who are victims of these practices are very, very real.
There is 15-year-old Sarita, her face glistening with tears, after she and her 8-year-old sister are married off in their Indian village. There is Tehani, raped at the age of 6 by her 25-year-old husband. And there is Asia, a Yemeni girl of 14, who struggles to care for her 2-year-old and a newborn while still bleeding and ill from childbirth.
At the exhibition, two young girls not much older than Asia stood before the photo of her washing her baby, whispering to each other. Photographer Stephanie Sinclair, who has been documenting child marriage for a dozen years, stopped to chat with them and urged them to promote change by speaking up.
“We had no idea this was going on,” one of the girls told Sinclair.
Luckily, awareness of child marriage and FGM are on the rise, thanks to advocacy work by groups like Girls Not Brides and Equality Now and the high-level conversations that give rise to events like Girl Summit 2014. Perhaps even more importantly, those conversations are beginning to happen at the local level by engaging parents, young girls and boys, and religious and community leaders who understand the cultural implications of these practices and are uniquely suited to offering meaningful, long-term solutions.
So as Farwa so bluntly and eloquently put it: What are we going to do? How do we go from talking about these issues—what Cameron referred to collectively as “preventable evil”—to doing something that produces real, measurable results?
The international charter that accompanied Girl Summit 2014 seemed to anticipate this concern. It urges signatories, including more than 30 national governments, to gather more and better data about child marriage and FGM and share that information with change-makers; to support youth-led initiatives; to invest in girls across educational, health, justice and social programs; and to back up policies and laws with tangible support for locally based efforts. “Lasting change will come from communities themselves,” the charter says.
As a necessary accountability measure, the commitments of those who signed the charter “will be monitored and assessed on an annual basis,” and the results will be published online for all to see.
The charter also notes that the responsibility for ending child marriage and FGM rests on broad shoulders. Governments, NGO’s and international organizations have important roles to play, but the success of their efforts depends largely on their ability to engage everyone from teens like Farwa to village elders, long considered the keepers of tradition.
“Traditions are not sent from heaven, they are not sent from God. [It is us] who make cultures,” Pakistani human rights activist Malala Yousafzai told the summit. “We have the right to change it and we should change it. Those traditions that go against the health of girls, they should be stopped.”
It’s important too that everyone understands that progress for girls and women means progress for everyone. Buying into that reality is essential for us to go from talking about these problems to fixing them.
“This is one of the most important messages that we need to get out there: that FGM and forced marriage aren’t just ‘women’s problems,’ ” UK’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said during the summit. “These practices aren’t just confined to the developing world. They impact every single one of us, and no country can afford to ignore them.”