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The 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA77) opened on 13 September under the theme “A watershed moment: Transformative solutions to interlocking challenges”. As the global crises of COVID-19, climate change, conflict and rising costs of living drive child marriage, we went to New York to discuss joint solutions with advocates, activists, academics and decision makers from around the world.
These interlocking crises are impacting food and nutrition, health, education, peace and security, and the environment. This could lead to an additional 75-95 million people living in extreme poverty. At the same time, 244 million children and youth are out of school and over 800 million people go to bed hungry every night. Girls are disproportionately affected, and an additional 10 million girls are expected to marry by 2030 due to the COVID-19 pandemic alone.
“I hope the world is gonna start to see child marriage as a pandemic, as an international threat, because it’s killing millions of dreams every year.”Sonita Alizadeh, Afghanistan/United States
By joining a range of discussions, we have assessed what will be shaping the agenda for the next year, and how child marriage fits into this. Below, we offer up our top three takeaways.
1) SDGs issue an SOS: Combined crises demand joint solutions and urgent action
With only eight years left, no country is on track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. In fact, combined crises are rolling back hard-won progress across the globe. Calls for joint solutions and urgent action were widespread and focused on:
- Engaging in international collaboration in a more inclusive, networked and responsive way, bringing governments from countries most affected by crisis into the room.
“We cannot solve new problems with old solutions, or with the same people in the room.”Jayathma Wickramanayake, UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth
- Redistributing power and working with civil society, particularly with existing networks and the grassroots, women-, and youth-led organisations on the front line.
“The statistics you are reading every day are from the grassroots, and therefore we on the grassroots can be able to support [millions of girls], only if you support us to do that.”Hope Nankunda, Raising Teenagers Uganda
- Redistributing resources, restructuring the global financial system and ensuring those most affected by crisis can access the funds they need to respond. The SDG Stimulus – to be led by the G20 – is an interim measure.
What this means for the movement to end child marriage:
- Eight of the 17 SDGs can’t be achieved unless we end child marriage, and girls from the poorest households, who are out of school or go to bed hungry are the most likely to marry before age 18. Civil society has a critical role to play in keeping child marriage on the agenda, and in holding governments accountable for their commitments.
“Basically, if we allow this to continue, we as the advocates, as world leaders, as policymakers, we will set ourselves up to fail.”Sonita Alizadeh, Afghanistan/United States
- There is power in partnership. Civil society is a key partner for governments, able to highlight community-level and sub-national challenges. Working together, we can identify and scale up effective, multi-stakeholder, cross-sectoral and cross-border solutions to complex and interconnected issues.
- With emergency SDG funding on the way, the focus needs to be on integrating the issue of child marriage into national budgets and action plans, and implementing them. As we face escalating crises, we – the movement to end child marriage – can support governments to strengthen community resilience, child protection, gender-based violence and sexual and reproductive health services, and girls’ access to education.
2) Education on the agenda: Funds needed to reach the most marginalised girls
Interconnecting crises have disrupted education for over 220 million school-aged children and youth, with adolescent girls being disproportionately affected.
The Transforming Education Summit (TES) was convened to recover pandemic-related learning losses. The Youth Declaration shares collective views, recommendations and commitments on transforming education, including a call for meaningful youth engagement, and an intersectional and inclusive approach that places the most marginalised groups at the forefront of all action.
However, the TES did not result in the hoped-for actionable plan to meet girls’ and adolescents’ demands. There were no commitments on humanitarian funding or coordinated diplomatic pressure on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan to drop the year-long ban on girls’ secondary school education. Lack of finance was also highlighted as a barrier to implementing ambitious plans for girls’ education.
“Most of you know what exactly needs to be done. You must not make small, stingy and short-term pledges – but commit to uphold the right to complete education and close the funding gap once and for all.”Malala Yousafzai, UN Messenger of Peace and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate
The International Finance Facility for Education will provide an initial US$2 billion in additional funding for education programmes starting in 2023, and a further US$10 billion by 2030. The High-Level Steering Committee will be following up on TES outcomes, and we have already started advocating to the G20 for increased financing for girls’ education.
What this means for the movement to end child marriage
- Keeping girls in school – especially secondary school – is one of the best ways to delay marriage. Education is also one of the most powerful drivers of gender equality, as is female participation in stable and highly skilled jobs, both of which protect against child marriage.
- Grassroots organisations working on child marriage are key partners in transforming education. Together, we can develop and implement context-specific, evidence-based, girl-centred responses; and we can identify and work to ensure those most marginalised by intersecting inequalities can access education and delay marriage. This includes girls and adolescents from poor, rural and Indigenous households and communities, those experiencing conflict or displacement, and those who are already married, in a union, pregnant or mothers.
- Together – across sectors and generations – we can advocate for the financing and implementation of gender-transformative approaches in and through education. At the top of our collective agenda are safe and inclusive learning spaces, menstrual hygiene management facilities, comprehensive sexuality education, and mechanisms to prevent and respond to school-related gender-based violence. Beyond school, promoting adolescent girls’ transition into high-quality, stable employment and opportunities is also a joint priority.
3) Shoots of hope: Youth demand to be engaged as partners and collaborators
Years of collective advocacy have moved the dial towards intergenerational solidarity. Progress continued this year, but there is frustration at the lack of opportunities for young people to engage in decision making spaces, and at the lack of action.
“In Mexico and Latin America [..] the pandemic and other crises have increased inequality, especially among young people. Systems of oppression like adult centrism have grown and amplified these gaps.”Fernanda Vázquez Rojas, Elige Red de Jóvenes por los Derechos Sexuales y Reproductivos, Mexico
The UN General Secretary made several proposals, including a repurposed Trusteeship Council, a Futures Lab, a Declaration on Future Generations and a United Nations Special Envoy to ensure that policy and budget decisions take into account their impact on future generations. The UN Youth Delegate Programme encourages youth participation in national delegations, and is one way to ensure they are part of the Pact for the Future, to be agreed in advance of the Summit for the Future.
What this means for the movement to end child marriage
- Civil society has a role to play in securing spaces for girls and adolescents – particularly the most marginalised – to share their solutions in a meaningful way, ensuring they are involved in decision making and in holding governments accountable for their commitments to structural change.
“Invite us – young people – to speak on the issue. We need to tell you what we need, we need to be in the conversations, we need to be at the table making decisions with you, we need to be part of this movement.”Fernanda Vázquez Rojas, Elige Red de Jóvenes por los Derechos Sexuales y Reproductivos, Mexico
- Beyond seeking young people’s opinions, we need to ensure their priorities are included on the international agenda. Over UNGA77, we heard young people prioritise girls’ education, sexual and reproductive health and rights, support for partnerships, and flexible funding for grassroots and youth organisations.
Advocacy spaces to follow up on UNGA77 commitments
In the time it has taken to read this article 87 girls under the age of 18 have been married
Each year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18
That is 23 girls every minute
Nearly 1 every 3 seconds