Strong partnerships and bold actions to stamp out child marriage and FGM

Date: Friday, March 15, 2019

Participants in the “Accelerating the elimination of harmful practices to reap the demographic dividend in Africa” side event to the 63rd session of the Commission on the Status of Women. Photo: UN Women/Amanda Voisard
Participants in the “Accelerating the elimination of harmful practices to reap the demographic dividend in Africa” side event to the 63rd session of the Commission on the Status of Women. Photo: UN Women/Amanda Voisard

On the margins of the 63rd session of the Commission on the Status of Women, a high-level side event on “Accelerating the elimination of harmful practices to reap the demographic dividend in Africa” convened Member States, civil society, youth and development partners to discuss decisive measures to eliminate child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) across the continent.

Often seen as traditional and cultural practices, female genital mutilation, and child, early and forced marriages are persisting human rights issues that affect women and girls in every region of the world. One in every five girls is married before reaching age 18, and more than 200 million women and girls alive today have been cut in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, where FGM is most common. According to recent UNFPA data, as many as 68 million girls globally may be at risk of FGM by 2030.


The side event organized by the Governments of Burkina Faso, Canada, Italy and Zambia, in partnership with UNICEF, UNFPA and UN Women, provided a platform for sharing actions taken so far and renewing partnerships between governments and other development actors to accelerate progress towards ending these harmful practices.

Speaking at the event, UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore stressed the importance of partnerships and commitment to end FGM and child marriage. “There is a real sisterhood between UN Women, UNICEF and UNFPA, so if UN can connect as one and if all can help, we can aid the countries that are in need,” she said. “The African Union’s outreach to young people is exceptional and it will probably be the turning point that will change Africa, if we can all do it together and do it right.”

UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka also stressed joint programming and the need to address poverty and bolster women’s economic empowerment. UN Women has worked with UNFPA and UNICEF to develop policy guidance and a training module on gender equality and female genital mutilation, which can be used by development practitioners working toward eliminating FGM in places where it’s most prevalent.

UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka speaks at the “Accelerating the elimination of harmful practices to reap the demographic dividend in Africa” side event to the 63rd session of the Commission on the Status of Women. Photo: UN Women/Amanda Voisard
UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka speaks at the “Accelerating the elimination of harmful practices to reap the demographic dividend in Africa” side event to the 63rd session of the Commission on the Status of Women. Photo: UN Women/Amanda Voisard

UN Women is also partnering with UNICEF and UNFPA in the second phase of the Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage, which is being implemented in 12 countries in high prevalence regions (Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Mozambique, Nepal, Niger, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Yemen and Zambia).

“Our particular interest is to support women’s economic empowerment so that parents don’t marry off children because they think that it means economic security for them; we can find ways of making them sufficiently economically empowered that they do not have to depend on this,” said Mlambo-Ngcuka.

The EU-UN Spotlight Initiative, a multi-year partnership between the European Union and the United Nations, which focuses on ending harmful practices and promoting sexual and reproductive health in its programming in Africa, is another promising initiative that’s strengthening the collaboration among relevant actors, including national governments, UN agencies and civil society, and making targeted, large-scale investments in Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Pacific and the Caribbean.

“We see this as a human rights issue, but also as an economic issue,” said Darren Welch, Director of Policy of the Department for International Development of the United Kingdom. At the individual level, child marriage leads to girls dropping out of school and in one study, early marriage was estimated to lead to the drop of nine per cent of lifetime earnings, something that economies cannot afford.”

UN Women Regional Goodwill Ambassador for Africa  Jaha Dukureh, at the ‘High-Level Side Event on the Margins of the Sixty Third Session of the Commission on the Status of Women: Accelerating the Elimination of Harmful Practices to Reap the Demographic Dividend in Africa’ at UNICEF House. Photo: UNICEF/Christine Nesbitt
UN Women Regional Goodwill Ambassador for Africa Jaha Dukureh, at the ‘High-Level Side Event on the Margins of the Sixty Third Session of the Commission on the Status of Women: Accelerating the Elimination of Harmful Practices to Reap the Demographic Dividend in Africa’ at UNICEF House. Photo: UNICEF/Christine Nesbitt

Jaha Dukureh, UN Women Regional Goodwill Ambassador for Africa and a survivor-activist, is supports UN Women’s advocacy to end FGM and child marriage in Africa, with a special focus on mobilizing youth. She pointed out that when it comes to ending FGM and child marriage, the people that sit at the table to discuss these issues are usually not young and have not been through the ordeal.

“They are talking about us and for us, and we become a footnote in their research.But I think we have changed that in the last five years,” Dukureh said. “The only way we are going to achieve change is by allowing young people [to engage and participate], especially within the continent of Africa. It is about how we elevate their voices and not suppress them. All we are asking for is to be given a seat at the table, and not just because we are young so that you can check that box, but because you believe that we can make a difference.”

In an effort to accelerate progress, the Big Sisters Movement under the NGO Safe Hands for Girls, founded by Dukureh, is organizing an African Leadership Summit on Female Genital Mutilation and Child Marriage, in Dakar, Senegal planned for later this year. The Summit, first of its kind, aims to mobilize a powerful and broad alliance of African Heads of State, civil society leaders, youth, religious and customary leaders, media and other influencers to take bold and decisive actions to ban FGM and dedicate specific budget allocations to implement existing laws and policies.

Petrider Paul, member of the African Union Youth Advisory Council, also stressed the importance of engaging youth in efforts to change behaviours. “It is a pity we do not invest in young people in a more sustainable way,” she said. “These are the future parents, the future government leaders, these are the future fathers. If young people [are] able to change the mindset of [other] young people and be the voice for the voiceless, it’s something that can…end child marriage and FGM.”

UNFPA’s Executive Director, Dr. Natalia Kanem, joined the conversation, highlighting the importance of comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services, education and information that is age-appropriate and in a language that girls can understand. This information needs to reach not just girls, but their brothers, fathers and their communities.

“Girls have to be given a voice to claim these rights,” Kanem said. “That girl who is running for her life from FGM is my hero. Girls who are defending their sisters against the practice - my hat’s off to them.

Jane Marie Ongolo, Head of Social Welfare and Vulnerable Groups-Department of Social Affairs, African Union Commission talked about how the AU has placed youth at the centre of their efforts.

“In a campaign to end child marriage, involvement of youth is critical,” she said, adding, “We have a youth volunteer programme to increase the capacity of youth and a number of them were selected to work with Member States to support the response towards ending child marriage.”

Making sure that youth are leading the way forward is at the heart of UN Women’s social mobilization efforts to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the blueprint for women’s rights worldwide.

“When we go to the Beijing+25 commemoration next year, it will be led by young people because we are handing things over to a new generation… by the time we get to 2030, this is one area where we should celebrate and say this is now behind us,” Mlambo- Ngcuka concluded.

Endorsed by 189 governments at the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, the Beijing Platform for Action called for actions to end harmful practices such as child marriage and FGM, among other measures to advance women’s and girls’ rights.