Speech: African youth lead the way on ending harmful practices

Remarks by Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, at the first African Summit on Female Genital Mutilation and Child Marriage in Dakar, Senegal on the African Day of the Child


[As delivered]

First of all, let me say what a great day this is to mark a special day for Africa’s children, to hear Africa’s children calling us to order and speaking truth to power. It is wonderful that in Africa now we have the space and the time to be here, to listen to young people who want to see action, who want to collaborate with us so that together we can change our continent.

I would like to express my gratitude and appreciation to the Government of Senegal and the Government of the Gambia for the warm hospitality and for enabling this conference to take place and making sure that “Jaha’s Promise” is fulfilled.

I also want to thank my colleagues in the UN system for everything that they have done to make today possible. I want to thank you for all the work that you have done in these many years that have brought us this far, because every step along the way that you have taken has made it possible for us to speak with one voice today.

And of course, thank you to the many activists who also worked so hard all over the continent and in different countries with partners and colleagues, and who have always been in solidarity with us.

We are here because we have a generation of young people who are clear that FGM and child marriage cannot continue. I want to ask the young people in the room just to stand up, because I think we need to really celebrate you. Thank you. Thanks for everything that you do now, and the many things that you are still going to achieve. I extend my great admiration to you and I think I speak for many people of my age when I say that we truly, truly admire you and we are ready to be taught by you.

We know that in the Sustainable Development Goals, the vision is for a world that has no harmful practices. The numbers that have already been shared here are staggering. The need for us to accelerate and to scale up is significant. And here today, if we work in partnership, there is a great opportunity that we can turn the tide.

I want to also extend my gratitude and thanks to the religious leaders; the people who are the custodians of the norms and traditions in many countries. Thank you for taking a stand and for making sure that there are no excuses for harming women and girls in the name of religion.

There is nothing that can justify these practices. No religious or cultural belief or medical reason. Not even the desire for social acceptance within our communities or the belief that we are doing this for the good of women and girls, by improving their chances of a suitable marriage or upholding their family honour.

FGM and child marriage are harmful in every sense of the word. They have a devastating impact on women and girls’ sexual and reproductive health and on their mental health. Both are linked to high rates of maternal mortality, lower use of family planning and unwanted pregnancies. They rob women of the opportunity to be educated, to become part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, to grow into their imaginative and innovative, clever selves, and stretch out to new possibilities, and for them and their families to enjoy the all benefits that a decent job brings.

The gains to come from ending these harmful practices are more than individual, more than family, more than community. Research indicates that there are tens of billions of dollars in increased GDP[1] to come from ensuring that our girls complete their education and fulfil their potential in our societies. And of course, the highest price is the respect for women and girls in their communities and the respect for human rights.

Ending FGM and child marriage is a target firmly rooted in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The elimination of these harmful practices therefore makes a crucial contribution, not only to progress towards achieving Sustainable Development Goal 5 on gender equality and women’s empowerment, but towards all the Sustainable Development goals and targets, on health, education, decent work and poverty reduction.

The links between poverty, FGM, child marriage and violence against women and girls are already well established. To put an end to these practices once and for all, we must address the root causes—gender inequality and all discrimination—and work towards women and girls as well as boys grasping the future that has been promised in Agenda 2063 and the many other important declarations that exist.

I would like again to express my appreciation for the dedicated work of UNFPA and UNICEF, but indeed the whole UN system, who have made sure that we have the data and the ability to track the progress that we are making and to realize how urgent it is that we accelerate change.


[1] World Bank Estimates for 12 countries—which account for half of the African continent’s population—suggest that through its impact on girls’ education, child marriage is costing these countries $63 billion in lost earnings and human capital wealth. Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Zambia.