By: Alison Blake
The British government is committed to a world where all girls and women have the opportunity to achieve their potential free from discrimination and violence. This week, British Prime Minister David Cameron hosted, jointly with Unicef, the Girl Summit 2014, bringing together governments, international organisations, faith leaders and civil society and community leaders from across the world to mobilise efforts across the world to end two harmful practices — female genital mutilation and child, early and forced marriages. We want to end both these practices in this generation, everywhere and forever.
It is likely that 125 million girls and women alive today have been cut in the 29 African and Middle Eastern countries where female genital mutilation is practised. For child and early marriages, Unicef estimates that globally around one in three young women currently aged 20 to 24, amounting to some 70 million, were married before the age of 18. Of those, some 23 million entered into marriage or union before the age of 15. In Pakistan, nearly half of all marriages involve girls younger than 18, and 70 per cent of Pakistani girls are married before their 16th birthday. Of the cases of forced marriage involving British citizens and handled by the British government’s Forced Marriage Unit, nearly half have links to Pakistan.
Child and early marriages are detrimental to gender equality and women’s empowerment, and pose major health risks for the mother and the baby. Girls under age 15 are five times more likely to die during childbirth. Young mothers under 20 are twice as likely to experience complications during childbirth than mothers over age 20. Children born to adolescent mothers are not only at a higher risk of being stillborn or dying before their first birthday, they are also more likely to have low birth weight, which can have an adverse impact on long-term health and physical and cognitive development.
Child and early marriages are not just harmful for the mother and her family. The scale and extent of women’s disempowerment in Pakistan is daunting. Pakistan is ranked one of the world’s most unequal countries for lack of economic, political, educational and health opportunities. Two-thirds of women cannot read or write while seven million girls do not go to school. Women make up only a quarter of the workforce.
Child marriages deny girls their childhood and disrupts or ends their education. Poor education limits economic opportunities and earning capacity, affecting the health and well-being of the girl and that of her future children and her entire household. A girl who is married as a child is more likely to be poor and stay poor. Meanwhile, her low status, isolation and lack of decision-making power in the household make her more vulnerable to domestic and sexual violence and different kinds of abuse. Eighty per cent of women in Pakistan are estimated to have experienced violence in the home but only four per cent of all police complaints are made by women.
Not only is the lack of female empowerment unfair, but it is also a huge loss of opportunity. Pakistan is missing out on the talent and productivity of half its population, holding back economic growth and opportunity for society.
Fortunately, things are improving in Pakistan. There is a strong women’s movement and parliamentary and governmental leaders are giving a strong signal of their commitment to support change. Landmark legislation has been passed in recent years to promote women’s empowerment, to increase participation in government and politics, to advocate women’s right to inherit and own land, and to protect women against sexual harassment, acid crimes and violence. Honour killing is now against the law.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Pakistan ratified, prohibits child marriages and laws now exist at the federal and provincial level to protect girls against child marriage. The Sindh Assembly recently passing a law on the minimum age of marriage — but much more needs to be done. Existing legislation needs to be fully implemented and practices that are illegal have to become socially unacceptable too.
Education is one of the most powerful tools to delay the age at which girls marry. Simply being in school helps a girl to be seen as still a child. Schools provide girls with knowledge, skills and social networks that help raise their aspirations and those of her parents. Delaying marriage improves education, health and job opportunities, and reduces the likelihood of exposure to violence or abuse. Educating a woman has a profound impact on the future economic and welfare prospects for her entire family. An educated woman earns more money, has more control over her life, choosing when to marry and how many children to have. An educated woman will want the same for her own children. She will bring up her daughters and her sons to support education and women’s participation in all spheres of life.
Women and girls are at the heart of the UK’s development work. With the Government of Pakistan, international partners and the civil society, we are investing to improve the lives of women. We are supporting women’s and girls’ education, improving the health of mothers and their babies, reducing the number of women who die in childbirth, helping women gets jobs, promoting their participation in politics and public life and helping protect them from violence.
To succeed in its campaign to stop these practices in a generation, the summit must mobilise governments, civil society and businesses leaders, men, women, girls and boys across the world. The strong signal of commitment sent by the Pakistani delegation who took part in the summit is very welcome. A brighter future for Pakistan is possible when the country is able to harness the skills, talent and productivity of all its people. Every woman and man, girl and boy in Pakistan, including international friends and partners, has a role to play.