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16 Days of Activism: UNHCR vows to work for the end of child marriage

A 14-year-old Syrian refugee in Lebanon holds out a photograph of her fiancé. The marriage was arranged by her parents, but the child was not happy.

A 14-year-old Syrian refugee in Lebanon holds out a photograph of her fiancé. The marriage was arranged by her parents, but the child was not happy. © UNHCR/L.Addario

GENEVA, November 25 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres on Tuesday condemned child marriage and said his organization must do its utmost to help stop the practice, which affects an estimated 15 million girls every year. His remarks came in a short ceremony in Geneva to mark the annual 16 Days of Activism against Sexual and Gender-Based Violence, where he said it was UNHCR’s duty to counter child marriage.

For this year’s 16 Days, which end on International Human Rights Day (December 10), UNHCR has chosen its own theme: “Protecting Rights and Preserving Childhoods: Working Together to Address Child Marriage.” While praising the work done to date by UNHCR staff, Guterres said more could be done.

“Given that child marriage is a deeply rooted practice, UNHCR must continue to work closely with communities, community leaders, and health and education actors to spread awareness about its risks and about the benefits of keeping children in school and delaying marriage until their adult years,” he said in a separate message for staff.

“We must advocate with governments for child marriage to be prohibited by law, and for this to be effectively enforced. Skills and vocational training for children-at-risk, as well as income-generating activities for their families, can help to prevent child marriage,” he added.

The High Commissioner said that owing to the link between sexual and gender-based violence and power relations, the empowerment of women at all levels was essential to protect the rights of girls. “Providing support to girls who have married young is also crucial,” he stressed.

Guterres said that child marriage violated rights and denied opportunities and he encouraged staff to spread awareness about the risks and to work with communities to find ways to protect the rights of girls and improve their access to education, giving them the chance for a brighter future.

Child marriage takes place in many countries where UNHCR operates, particularly in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Some displaced people practised child marriage before they fled their homes, and the tradition continues. Others feel they have little choice owing to the pressures and insecurity they face: marriage is seen as a way to protect children or as a means of alleviating economic hardship.

Marrying at an early age can have a devastating impact on a child’s life. Though some boys are also married as children, which can place adult burdens on their shoulders and interrupt their education, this is predominantly a problem facing girls.

Below the age of 18 years, girls are neither physically nor emotionally ready to become wives and mothers. They are more susceptible to domestic violence, including sexual violence, particularly owing to the power imbalance between a girl and an older man.

Married girls are frequently denied the opportunity to go to school: their families see little value in education once they are married. Not only does this deprive girls of the opportunity to learn and socialize with their peers, it makes them dependent on their husbands, further exposes them to abuse and limits their future prospects.

Adolescent girls who become pregnant are at high risk of maternal mortality and other complications during pregnancy and childbirth. Still children themselves, they may also lack the knowledge or capacity to raise their own children, with serious repercussions for their health and well-being. Child marriages are frequently not legally registered, which can be an impediment to birth registration, resulting in additional protection risks.

UNHCR offices across the world will be holding a wide range of activities to mark the 16 Days of Activism and today’s International Day to Eliminate Violence Against Women. Staff in the field have collected drawings and stories from children depicting their opinions, fears and experiences of child marriage. The overwhelming message is that children do not want to marry they want to embrace their childhoods and continue with their schooling, and they fear being exposed to abuse.

The 16 Days of Activism is an international campaign originating from the first Women’s Global Leadership Institute in 1991. It brings together UNHCR, partners, persons of concern and host communities worldwide in a united call to end sexual and gender-based violence in all its forms