Remarks by Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and UN Women Executive Director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, at the Community Dialogue on Ending Child Marriages in Sindh, Pakistan
Change starts when people say “in my generation I will redefine history”.
A girl who is married as a child is one whose potential will not be fulfilled. This is an issue that we must address everywhere in the world.
We know today that when a girl is married she misses out on her education. And if she misses out on her education, she is going to be poor. As parents, we do not want our children to be poorer than us. In every generation we want the next generation to be better and better and better.
We know that when a girl is married at an early age she faces a greater risk of being in a violent relationship. When she becomes pregnant at an early age she is likely to have a difficult childbirth. She may die, or she may live with the consequences of the complications that come from having a child while she is herself a child.
Worldwide, we are still fighting to solve this practice in our society. We are grateful that here in this community you have decided that you are going to do this for yourselves, by yourselves and together.
We believe that what you are doing here is something that, in the current generation, will make you one of the best communities. People will look back at this day and say, “you had wise leaders in this community who had foresight; you had wise women and wise men in this community who had foresight”. The changing of history in a community starts like this, with people who say, “in my generation I will redefine history”.
I come from South Africa. Some of you may know Nelson Mandela, who was our president in South Africa. One of his most famous sayings is that it falls upon a generation to be great. Every generation has an opportunity to be great. You have to choose to be great. And you have to choose what you are great about.
What you are doing here is choosing, as this generation, to take your own destiny into your own hands to bring greatness to this community and then to take it out to the world. That is why we are here, to witness your greatness so that we take it out all over the world. Thank you for this privilege.
I want to commend the women, the girls and the boys of Mithi for coming together and talking to each other like this; for raising your hand, standing in front, being united with your leaders. Because everybody actually is a leader. If people take a step to do the right thing because their leaders have instructed them, we call them followers. But actually, they are the leader-followers, because there is no leader that can move forward if the people who are following you are not leaders in their own right. So, thank you for combining leadership and following in a manner that will make life better for everyone in this community.
I would like to say to the men in this community: you are very important in making these initiatives succeed. We need men to support these difficult decisions, because you have authority in many of our communities, and this authority gives you responsibility. Because those to whom so much status has been given, much more is expected, for society to thrive.
It should be the men therefore who, when they are talking in their villages with their people, when they are meeting as religious leaders, when they are preaching, are the ones to say: “as the men of this community, we will not marry children”. I want brothers to say, “my sister will not be married off as a child”. I want uncles to say, “my little beautiful niece will not be married off as a child, she will stay in school”. I want grandpa to say, “my little grandchild will not be married off”. How beautiful is that?
We need religious leaders who are responsible for solemnizing marriages to say, “can I see your birth certificate? Are you breaking the law or not?” Because the law is there in Pakistan. You have already tackled these problems. You have already taken this big step, so we need your help to implement this law as religious leaders who are responsible for giving credibility to marriages.
We also need school principals and the teachers to pay attention when a girl does not come back to school and to ask, “what happened to that girl? Why is she not coming back to school?” Go home, talk to the parents, find her and bring her back to school.
We need to have committees in our communities who can monitor and prevent this practice before it happens, so that as many people as possible in the community discuss this and see how they can prevent this together.
And we need the police to say, “I am law enforcement, I have responsibility to ensure the law is obeyed. And if you marry a child before the age of 18, you are breaking the law and we are going to be knocking at your door”.
Let me tell you a story. A young girl from Nigeria who was married as a child came to speak to the leaders of many African countries. She said, “I was a bright student, I was getting A’s in mathematics; I wanted to be an engineer. One day when I got home, there were uncles at the house. My mother told me that the uncles were going to take me, and that one uncle who did not look very nice was going to be my husband. I could not believe it. At first, I thought my mother was just teasing me.”
“That night I was coming home to study for a test and my teacher had told me that I was doing so well she couldn’t wait to see my test results because she knew I was going to get a star. And of course, that did not happen because I was taken away from school. When I was married, there was one person who felt so sorry for me because I was so thin and so sick and crying every day. She managed to steal me and to take me to a social worker who then saved me from that marriage.”
Well, to cut a long story short, she went back to school and then she became a nurse. She was trying to rebuild her life. One thing that I will never forget is that the most painful thing for her was that no one came to look for her. Not even the teacher who she thought loved her so much.
Our girl children in this community are going to be engineers, they are going to be doctors, they are going to be lawyers, they are going to be presidents, they are going to lead the United Nations. We must not stop them. We must educate them. Look at the people that are here today. It is because we had this opportunity. Every girl deserves this opportunity, and it is in your hands.
I thank you for your leadership and your big hearts to take this oath today and for this initiative. Thank you.