Promoting quality education for all.

On Civil Society and Girls Forced to Marry…

by Jill Christianson , 

by Jill Christianson, National Education Association

UN and Civil Society

This year’s United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW59) marks the 20th anniversary of the landmark Beijing Platform for Action which laid out a roadmap for progress for girls and women worldwide.  I’ve just returned from the United Nations where I was a part of the Education International delegation to the 59th UN Commission on the Status of Women (UNCS59).    Our Education International delegation at the UN included 20 educators from 12 nations – we were present to advocate on behalf of women educators and girls in the USCSW59 and Beyond-2015 agenda. 

I’ve followed the UNCSW for over a decade now and have seen real changes in the UN operations of this meeting and the role of Civil Society.  Each year at UNCSW, we are present not only observe their governments make progress on behalf of women and girls, but also to lobby for education, teacher training, and dignified work to be included in outcome documents.  

I’m concerned about the narrowing window for civil society influence for this meeting - and in the final negotiations to the World Education Forum and the Sustainable Development Goals.  At the UNCSW, it is becoming more and more challenging for NGOs and Civil Society representatives to access to the meeting itself, not unlike concerns raised by Civil Society in other UN meetings.   Though UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon has made very clear messages about the importance of the UN making progress with Civil Society partners, most official sessions at the Commission on the Status of Women have extremely limited access for NGOs.  At the United States Mission to the UN, a similar message was communicated during this UNCSW; yet transparency and inclusion were not evident with it being a struggle even to receive a list of 50 members within the US government’s delegation.

A Political Declaration was finalized at UNCSW59 on the first morning of the two week session, reflecting negotiations that took place outside of public view.  Only 40 states negotiated the declaration; just a fraction of the member states were actually involved in process!  In response to this declaration which reinforced the Beijing Platform for Action but broke no new ground, the coalition of Trade Union Delegation (of which Education International is a part) calls for greater progress, transparency, and engagement with Civil Society.  

As the official proceedings are taking place at the UN, there is a parallel universe of workshops, presentations and networking sponsored by Civil Society, governments, other UN agencies such as UN Women, ILO, and UNICEF.  This year, there seems to be fewer education sessions than ever, but one presentation particularly grabbed my attention as we quest for Education For All, and the importance of quality education for girls. 

On ‘Child Marriage’ and Education Impacts

There is a changing tide on what is called child marriage, which is a misnomer noting that in many cases, girls have zero choice in the matter. “I am angry that after 20 years (after the groundbreaking agreements on human rights at the Beijing World Conference on Women), we are still calling this child marriage...700 million women today had sex without their consent and we call it marriage...we have failed to protect girls." Thus began the riveting presentation by Ambassador Nyaradzayi Gumbozvanda, the African Union Goodwill Ambassador for Child Marriage and the General Secretary of the World YWCA. 

The Ambassador noted that each day 39,000 girls in developing nations are forced to marry.  This can include abduction and rape, exposure to HIV plus other STDs.  Often marriages are between men who are decades older than their child brides.  With this modern form of slavery, as Ambassador Gumbozvanda stated, “we sanitize crime and give it legality by calling it marriage.”   #prioritizegirls

Clearly, formal education comes to an abrupt end for girls as they are forced to marry, resulting in lifelong implications for them and their families. 

We can do better.  As we move into final decisions related to the World Education Forum and the Sustainable Development Goals, let us continue to be sure we are focused on the most marginalized of children, including girls who are forced to marry.  Let us to continue to loudly call for walking the talk of Civil Society inclusion.

Jill Christianson is a Senior Policy Analyst for International Relations at the National Education Association.  Check out the blog of the Unions engaged at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.

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