Op-ed: For a Better World for AllDr. Babatunde Osotimehin is the Executive Director of the UN Population Fund and Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is the Executive Director of UN Women.
It is now 100 long days since the abduction of 276 girls from their school in Chibok in northern Nigeria shocked and outraged the world. While a few of the girls have managed to escape their captors, the majority remain separated from their shattered families.
It is the nature of news – and, sadly, terrible events happening elsewhere – that the Chibok girls, and indeed, more Nigerian girls who have been kidnapped since, are no longer in the global spotlight. We must not forget them, and we must keep demanding action to bring back our girls.
But finding the girls won’t be the end of the nightmare. After such terrible trauma, the girls and their families will need support to enable them to come to terms with what happened and slowly resume normal life, including their education. The plight of the Chibok schoolgirls is a powerful reminder that girls’ education is not universally valued, and that violence and discrimination against half of the world’s population remains widespread. This mistreatment is seen in the starkest terms in the challenges of child, early, and forced marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM).
Despite the commitment of almost all governments to end the practice, such ‘marriages’ remain appallingly common. One in three girls in the developing world outside China is married before she is 18. For one in nine girls, this will happen before she is 15, and for some, at just eight years old.
In those communities where the practice is most common, many families feel it is not worth investing in educating their daughters. Young girls married to much older men often find themselves subject to silencing, abuse or isolation.
Child, early, and forced marriage limit girls’ education, future prospects, health, and lives. Marriage at such a young age greatly increases the chance of complications in pregnancy and childbirth – and is one of the main causes of death among girls ages 15 to 19 in the developing world.
Likewise, the physical and psychosocial effects of FGM are highly damaging and can lead to a lifetime of pain. It is estimated that as many as 140 million girls and women alive today have been subjected to this practice. This violent form of female disempowerment is found in communities throughout the world, but is most prevalent in Africa, the Middle East, Europe and Asia. In some countries, nine out of ten girls continue to be mutilated.
There are, however, reasons for optimism. There is a growing awareness of the scale of these abuses and the damage they cause, coupled with a growing determination to eliminate them. UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, along with UN Women and UNICEF, have been highly successful in building coalitions with governments and civil society groups – including in the countries where these practices remain most entrenched – to drive and accelerate change.
The tide is turning. In the past five years, more than 12,700 communities, representing some 10 million people, have made public declarations to abandon FGM. UNFPA has been able to build the capacities of more than 100,000 health professionals to prevent, protect and provide care on FGM-related issues. In addition, we have integrated FGM management in about 5,500 health facilities in Africa.
Recognizing that these practices cannot be justified on the grounds of religion or culture, there is a growing number of countries with ‘zero tolerance’ of FGM and child, early, and forced marriage. With renewed effort and resources, we have the chance to rid the world of these harmful practices within a generation. But we cannot be complacent.
The targeting of the Chibok girls was a targeting of their right to education first and foremost. Girls’ education undermines discriminatory power relations and threatens those who maintain them. It leads to lower child, early, and forced marriage and reduces harmful traditional practices, violence at home, maternal death, and feminized poverty. In short, it is a clear path to gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. While a strong security response is critical in the case of the Chibok girls, safe access to education for all children must be a cornerstone of our efforts to curtail extremism and end harmful practices.
This week, to capitalize on this momentum and build on the progress made, experts and campaigners from across the world are meeting in London for the first ever Girl Summit. UN Agencies, Governments and non-governmental organizations will commit to take action with affected communities to create a world where every girl is free to be a girl, to go to school, and to reach her full potential – a better world, not just for girls and women, but for all.