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Girls: reaching their full potential

Jul 23,2014 - Last updated at Jul 23,2014

As parents we all want the best for our children. To reach full potential, girls need a loving and secure home environment, a good education and support that encourages their talents so that they can enjoy happy, satisfying and fulfilling lives. 

Early marriage prevents that from happening. Girls who marry young drop out of school. They lose the right to make their own choices and miss out on skills that are vital for enriching their lives. And forced marriage exposes young girls to physical, psychological, emotional and sexual abuse.

Globally, one in three girls gets married by the age of 18. Some are forced into marriage at the age of eight. Even at the age of 15, girls are still children. At this age pregnancy puts their lives and the lives of their children at risk. 

The reasons for child and forced marriage are often economic and social: it has traditionally been seen as a way out of poverty and a path to a more secure future. But while some parents might see early marriage as the best protection for their child, more often than not it has the opposite effect. It increases the risk of abuse from their husbands, the likelihood of divorce and a broken family. Girls often end up locked into a cycle of poverty. 

In Jordan, a recent study by UNICEF shows that 13 per cent of registered marriages involve a girl under 18, which is over 9,600 young girls. Most are married to men who are significantly older than they are. When it comes to Syrian refugee girls in Jordan, 25 per cent of marriages involve a girl under 18, often much younger. The figure may well be higher for marriages that are not registered.

What can be done? Encouraging girls and their parents to think twice before early marriage is important. Education can play a major role: keeping girls in school — even for just one more year — will give them greater confidence in dealing with the world. It can also increase their ability to earn a better salary by 15-20 per cent. 

UNICEF is focussing on empowering girls to take control of their lives by providing opportunities for them to enter formal and informal education, especially vocational training and life skills. The UN is also encouraging discussion of these issues among community and religious leaders, to demonstrate that preventing early marriage is better for the community as a whole. Non-governmental organisations are also working in this field, for example in trying to provide women with better access to justice. 

Action is needed on a global scale. For that reason the UK government and UNICEF hosted the Girl Summit in London on Tuesday, mobilising international efforts to end child, early and forced marriage. Governments, international organisations, civil society and the private sector exchanged views on how to tackle these issues. It was not just a talking shop: the summit agreed on new commitments to end early and forced marriage. 

The summit also focussed on female genital mutilation (FGM), an extreme form of violence against women and girls. It is a human rights violation and can have a lifelong impact on survivors’ physical and psychological health. It has affected over 125 million women in the countries where the tradition is prevalent. Over 30 million girls are at risk in the next 10 years. 

Early marriage and FGM are contrary to the universal values of our common humanity and the human rights of girls all over the world. And immigration means that girls in Europe and North America are also at risk of these practices: over 20,000 girls in the UK are at risk of FGM. 

The Girl Summit focussed attention on issues which are difficult and sensitive. We now need to see discussion at global and national level as well as within communities to implement concrete actions. Let’s hope this will bring a better future for our children. 


Peter Millett is British ambassador to Jordan. Robert Jenkins is the UNICEF Representative in Jordan They contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

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