KABUL (Pajhwok): Childhood should be a joyful time when you can dream of the future. Imagine what life would be like if you were married as a child against your will. Your hopes and dreams would be shattered, as you were forced to live a life you did not want, vulnerable to harm and abuse.
Today we are marking the first anniversary of the international Girl Summit, which was co-hosted by the UK and UNICEF in London last year. The goal of the Summit was to mobilise international efforts to support girls to have better lives, including by ending child, early and forced marriage. Over 490 individuals, governments and organisations have so far signed up to the Girl Summit Charter, including five Afghan organisations. The UK is committed to this Charter.
We should now reflect on the progress that has been made since then and what more needs to be done to tackle this global problem. Despite significant progress on human rights and women’s rights in Afghanistan, many Afghan girls are tragically still victims of human right abuses.
Afghan Civil Law sets the minimum age to get married at 16 for girls and 18 for boys. However, according to UNICEF, an estimated 15 percent of girls in Afghanistan are married before the age 15. Other reports suggest this is even higher.
There are many reasons why child marriage is harmful both to children and to society. Child marriage affects both girls and boys, but has a disproportionate effect on girls.
First, it can cause huge problems for girls’ health. Early pregnancy and childbirth among young girls can lead to life-long injury and even the death of both mother and child. 32 percent of deaths among 15-19 year olds are due to pregnancy-related complications. And globally, stillbirths and newborn deaths are higher among infants born to adolescent girls than those born to mothers aged 20-29 years.
Second, this is also an economic issue. Child marriage limits a girl’s potential by preventing her from going to go to school to get an education. She may remain illiterate, with limited opportunities to get a job and contribute to household income.
Third, young girls may be forced to marry boys or men much older than them. These girls often have little or no say in the household. And they are more likely to suffer domestic violence, including beatings and other physical and sexual abuse.
As the UK’s International Development Secretary Justine Greening has said, “Every girl who is married as a child is a tragedy… a tragedy for her but also a tragedy for her children… for her country’s development.”
Afghanistan’s fragile economy needs to make the most of its resources, including by ensuring all its citizens are healthy and are able to go to school. President Ghani has described women as one of Afghanistan’s three majorities, along with its youth and the poor. President Ghani has also made clear the economic importance of empowering women, so that they can participate fully in the workplace.
Change here must be Afghan-led. We welcome the Government of Afghanistan’s commitment to ensuring the protection and progression of women’s rights. But these commitments should be put into practice. We will continue to support the Afghan Government and civil society in their efforts.
Many factors lead to child marriage, including social pressures, poverty and lack of education. These causes need to be addressed, including by raising awareness of the problem; enabling the rights of girls, including by providing legal protection; providing access to health and education; and engaging with community and religious leaders.
Afghanistan’s rich historical culture and proud traditions are known the world over. It is also a country which once demonstrated progressive attitudes towards women’s rights: women in Afghanistan were first given the vote in 1919, only a year after their British counterparts and before women in America.
Countries change in response to the times: for example, the UK military is similarly proud of its traditions, but has recognised the need to tackle discriminatory practices. Roles in the UK armed forces are increasingly determined by ability, not gender. Following a recent review, even combat roles are planned to be open to women by 2016. Moreover, the British military used to deploy soldiers as young as 16 in combat roles, but following international agreements relating to children, we now wait until the recruits, male and female, become adults.
At the first Afghanistan-EU Human Rights Dialogue last month the Afghan government committed to establishing a Child’s Rights Act, with a draft to be produced in 2017. We welcome this pledge.
Projects such as the UK-supported Girls Education Challenge help contribute to this by getting more children into school. Already to date, it has enabled over 106,000 children to enrol in community-based education across 16 provinces in over 4,100 community-based schools in Afghanistan.
The UN is doing excellent work on child protection in Afghanistan. The UK supports the UN in its prioritisation of preventing violence against women and child marriage, including through the Office of the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women. Both UNICEF and UNFPA are for example developing comprehensive outreach efforts to engage communities, NGO partners and local and national government counterparts to advocate for the protection of children and prevention of early marriage.
We should in particular encourage young people to share their views and debate these important issues. We’ve launched an essay competition on our Embassy’s Facebook page today, which invites young people to explain why they believe in the rights of women and girls.
Global attention must not be diverted from the ongoing problem of child and forced marriage. Today’s anniversary of the Girl Summit provides an opportunity for us to reflect. We need to act now to ensure young Afghan girls and boys are healthy, educated and can fulfil their potential, including by preventing child marriage. Today’s youth are Afghanistan’s future.
Karen Pierce is the British ambassador for Afghanistan