UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova stressed that education is one of the most effective ways to avert child marriage at the first “Girl Summit 2014,” held in a south London school on 22 July 2014.
The Summit, hosted by the Government of the United Kingdom and UNICEF, aims to galvanize international support to inspire efforts to end female genital mutilation and child, early and forced marriage (CEFM) within a generation. Speakers included United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina, the Deputy Prime Minister of Ethiopia Demeke Mekonnen, the first lady of Burkina Faso Chantal Compaoré, activist Malala Yousafzai and numerous ministers of health, social affairs and international development, as well as civil society advocates and campaigners.
Legislation, education, job opportunities and community advocacy were flagged by all speakers as winning strategies to counter what Prime Minister Cameron described as a violation of girls’ rights and “preventable evil” that calls for a “global movement.” More than 700 million women alive today were married as children, of which 250 million before age 15, while some 130 million girls worldwide are affected by female genital mutilation.
“All political leaders here today have stressed the hugely important role of education for averting early childhood marriage,” said Ms Bokova. “Poverty is one of the main reasons that prevents parents from sending their girls to school. This is why in all our strategies, starting with the post-2015 agenda, we are putting the emphasis on free and compulsory primary and secondary education – this primarily benefits girls. “
According to UNESCO’s Global Monitoring Report, if all girls had secondary education in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia, child marriage would fall by 64% and early births by 59%
Ms Bokova also insisted on the need to focus on young adolescent girls and the transition to puberty, when the risks of dropping out of school rise. “Trained female teachers, gender-sensitive textbooks, safe schools are all important. But we also have to work with families, with traditional and religious leaders, and with girls themselves, so that they understand what is at stake, including through puberty education.”
Malala Yousafzai affirmed that the “best solution is education – education makes girls independent and realize they have equal rights”. Many speakers reflected on how to change social norms and traditions. “Traditions are not sent from God. We make culture and we have the right to change it.”
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina reported on a full set of measures, from strong legislation, free textbooks, stipends for girls through secondary school and beyond and community based innovations to fight early marriage. Deputy Prime Minister Mekonnen related efforts to break taboos in Ethiopia through decentralized authority, community involvement and ownership, advocacy and more effective education systems. Ms Compaoré stressed that nothing can be done without political will at the highest level and noted that Burkina Faso is introducing modules on female genital mutilation in teacher training courses for the next school year.
A Charter adopted at the Summit affirms that “these practices violate the fundamental rights of all girls and women to live free from violence and discrimination” and sets out ten actions to end them, ranging from legislation and policies to data, research and investment in education and health.
UNESCO committed to intensify high-level policy advocacy to keep and bring back girls to school, to reinforce normative action and increase support to Member States to promote safe and enabling learning environments for girls.