Thank you for that introduction, and I want to thank our hosts PLAN, Girls Not Brides and the UK Gender and Development Network for organising this event.
I also want to thank all of my officials in DFID who work on this day in and day out, for all of their efforts.
And I know there are charities, campaigners and activists here today who are at the forefront of helping to make the world a better place for girls and women.
I don’t think I need to tell everyone here how important the girls and women agenda is to me personally, and to my Department. Our Prime Minister talks about the Golden Thread of Development, building the kind of open economies and societies where everyone has a chance to contribute. Women and girls are an integral part of that challenge.
Many of you were present a year ago when I set out that the Department for International Development would be taking its work on girls and women to the next level.
In many areas, that meant getting to the root cause of the problem, which is about tackling the discriminatory social norms that keep too many girls and women poor and marginalised.
Tackling the deep-rooted prejudices and attitudes that mean simply being born a girl in some communities and countries, defines and limits what you can achieve for your whole life.
And in the last year I really do feel like we’ve made real progress on our strategy to help give girls and women a voice, choice and control over their lives.
We’ve helped more women access modern, safe family planning methods. We’ve helped promote girls and women as leaders in politics, peace processes and public life. And we are removing the barriers that so often prevent girls and women from contributing to and benefitting from economic development.
I am personally championing a new initiative to leverage greater international investment from a wide range of partners, including the private sector, to support countries that are integrating work on improving girls and women’s prospects into national economic development plans, starting with Nigeria and Sierra Leone.
And we are also scaling up our work on tackling violence against girls and women. And I’m particularly proud of the ambitious, world leading work DFID is doing to end Female Genital Mutilation in a generation, work that has been brilliantly led by DFID’s Parliamentary Under Secretary of State Lynne Featherstone.
I should also praise William Hague, the Foreign Secretary’s on-going commitment to addressing sexual violence in conflict through the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative and the UNGA Declaration of Commitments to End Sexual Violence, which have now been endorsed by 140 countries.
The gap on Early and Forced Marriage
So it has been a year of progress, and I’m really grateful to all of the campaigners, all the organisations here today who have worked with us. Together, I really do believe that we have pushed gender equality up the global agenda.
But I’ve felt that there was an area that we didn’t talk about enough, an area that has too often gone unacknowledged and untackled and that is Early and Forced Marriage.
In the past many of us have found talking about Early and Forced Marriage very uncomfortable. It’s generally been considered too difficult, too taboo, maybe too entrenched to focus on too much.
As I’ll outline today, I believe this has simply got to change.
All over the world millions of girls are being forced into marriage, many while they are still children, where they will come under immediate pressure to have children themselves.
And for many of us, as we grow up we realise there’s a whole world of opportunity out there – but for these girls, whatever may be the case for their brothers – when they reach adolescence their world shrinks. And hope gives way to a restricted, limited reality.
And this isn’t good enough. Nearly 20 years ago at a historic women’s conference in Beijing, the international community agreed with America’s then First Lady Hilary Clinton when she said: “that human rights are women’s rights…. and women’s rights are human rights.”
Since then the world has made great progress on gender equality…but as long as Early and Forced Marriage exists we have not fulfilled our promise to girls and women. Early and Forced Marriage remains one of the critical symptoms of the low status of girls and women in many societies, and of the day to day neglect of their rights.
It’s time for us to break the silence and take action.
A Human Rights Issue
DFID is already doing this in our campaign to help end Female Genital Mutilation.
FGM is something we have historically backed away from in many respects. Yet there are 125million girls and women across the world who have had their genitalia partially or totally removed – leading to a lifetime of psychological scars and serious health problems.
In many places FGM is carried out because it is believed to be in the girl’s best interests. Traditionally uncut girls cannot marry and are seemingly condemned to a life of stigma and discrimination.
Slowly but surely things are changing for the better. Women and girls, – and many men and boys, – leaders and communities are speaking out against a harmful and violent practice that holds girls, women and countries back. And we are seeing thousands of communities in West Africa deciding to abandon the practice of FGM.
Our job is to support them and to accelerate the pace of change.
And the UK is already leading the way as the world’s biggest supporter of activity to end FGM, something I think we can be incredibly proud of. Last year DFID launched a £35 million programme that will work in 17 countries to support the Africa-led movement to end FGM.
And I want to replicate the success that DFID and others are having on FGM with Early and Forced Marriage.
It’s another huge issue…Early and Forced Marriage happens all over the world…it happens here in the UK.
In total Early and Forced Marriage affects about 14 million girls every year. 1 in 3 girls in the developing world are married by age 18, and one in nine are married by age 15. Some are as young as 8 years old.
But as with FGM, we are starting to hear voices across the developing world saying enough is enough. We must support them.
Voices like Zambia’s First Lady Dr Christine Kaseba who recently launched her country’s campaign against child marriages…she highlighted the problem of Zambia having a statutory law prohibiting child marriage but customary laws allowing it.
She says: “We cannot have a situation where defilement of girls as young as 12 years is backed by the law! How then do we come up with strategies that can protect our children when laws that are supposed to protect children are so fluid and porous?” Her words.
And you only have to talk to girls themselves and hear how they feel about it to grasp how wrong this practice is.
Girls like Fatima from Egypt, who was 15 when she was forced to marry what she describes as a ‘grotesque old man with 6 children’. After being married she was immediately under pressure to have a baby, against the advice of doctors.
Girls like Lamana from Cameroon, also 15 when she was told she had to marry. When the day of the wedding was announced she recalls thinking, “how can I invite my friends to a forced marriage? I refused all of the ceremonies because I didn’t want to be a part of that.” She eventually ran away after her husband raped and beat her.
Lamana and Fatima have since received help from PLAN, one of several amazing organisations doing pioneering work to help girls rebuild their lives and speak out against their experiences.
But we know that there are many other girls who will never get to talk about their experiences.
Last year it was reported that an 8 year old Yemeni girl named Rawan died after suffering internal injuries on the night of her arranged marriage – to a man more than 5 times her age. She was just 8.
History, tradition, cultural practises…these should not and can never be used to excuse the unacceptable.
And Early and Forced Marriage is unacceptable.
The smart thing to do
It is not just about human rights. When girls cannot decide for themselves whether, when and with whom to get married and have children: it’s not just unacceptable for them, it’s a disaster for development.
Girls who marry earlier are more likely to suffer domestic violence and sexual abuse, they are more likely to contract HIV from their older husbands…
…Girls who give birth before the age of 15 are also 5 times more likely to die in childbirth than girls in their 20s…
…And the children of child brides are 60% more likely to die before their first birthday than the children of mothers who are over 19.
Early and Forced Marriage is also closely linked to low levels of economic development…Girls who marry young are more likely to be poor and stay poor.
In contrast delaying marriage and enabling girls to improve their education, health and job opportunities can not only help them to move out of poverty, it can also have a profound impact on their families and on their own children, giving them the opportunity to break the cycles of poverty that can pass from generation to generation.
And that’s why the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day ‘Equality for women is progress for all’, is so apt.
But as long as girls are being locked out of progress, valued only for their bride price…a country cannot develop properly. Transforming her future – means transforming the future of whole communities and countries.
Taking action against Early and Forced Marriage
So what can the UK do to tackle Early and Forced Marriage?
To begin with, I think we’ve got to beat the drum internationally and see the UK play a leading role in calling for greater resources, better coordination, and a stronger focus on this issue.
We need to step up as a country to join with Canada and the Netherlands, who have taken the initiative in actively supporting the Southern country leadership we’re seeing from Zambia, Ghana and others to push UN resolutions on Early and Forced Marriage.
I also want the UK to be at the forefront of galvanising not just statements of support and UN resolutions, important as they are, but shaping long-term international action.
As many of you are aware we are at a key moment for designing the next generation of international development goals, with the Millennium Development Goals for reducing poverty due to expire at the end of next year.
These goals have seen some huge successes over the past 13 years…but progress has been uneven, particularly for girls and women.
And it was fantastic that MDG3 addressed gender equality but in many respects the MDGs could have gone further in addressing discriminatory social norms, like Early and Forced Marriage. And in fact efforts to improve maternal health are among the most off track, progress on adolescent births has all but stalled.
In May last year the UN’s High Level Panel for the Post-2015 development agenda, co-chaired by our Prime Minister, alongside President Yudhoyono of Indonesia and President Sirleaf of Liberia, said we should be the generation to end extreme poverty.
The UK is hugely supportive of this and the Panel’s goal of leaving no one behind.
And the UK believes it is vital that the world agrees a powerful standalone gender goal post 2015. It was right that the Panel recommended that we have an explicit target on ending Child Marriage, alongside these other gender targets, and we will work to support this in the process ahead in the UN.
I will be raising Early and Forced Marriage when I attend the Commission on the Status of Girls and Women next week, holding a roundtable with Canada where we will champion the call for global action on this.
I also believe that in DFID we can do more to help end Early and Forced Marriage with our own development programmes and humanitarian responses.
As with FGM, we will build on what works, continuing existing pilots, scaling up where programmes are successful, and we will start new pilots to find more innovative solutions on what works.
Our FGM campaign has also shown us that to succeed there needs to be a grassroots movement, a real coalition of voices – girls and boys, parents, religious and community leaders, politicians – all speaking out against a harmful practise. This movement has really started to get momentum already. In December last year Health and Education Ministers from 21 countries in Eastern and Southern Africa set themselves a target to eliminate Early and Forced Marriage by 2020.
We must support them – DFID is working already directly with communities where Early and Forced Marriage is prevalent.
Our flagship programme in Ethiopia’s Amhara region, focuses on engaging with the whole community to change attitudes. It works directly with girls and boys through programmes in schools, including girls’ clubs, mentorships, economic incentives to encourage girls to enroll and stay in school.
It is early days for this programme but there are already parents who have changed their minds on the value of education for their daughters, and decided to keep them in school. And we know there have been over 600 marriages that have been cancelled since the start of the programme.
These sorts of programmes can show us the way forward. And DFID is currently developing more programmes like this one. We are looking to reshape our portfolio so more of our work has an explicit and direct focus on Early and Forced Marriage. You can expect to hear much more on this in the coming months.
The UK is also getting its own house in order on both FGM and Early and Forced Marriage. Legislation to criminalise forced marriage in the UK is currently going through Parliament.
Our Forced Marriage Unit provides assistance to victims, and it gave advice or support relating to a possible forced marriage in more than 1300 cases in 2013. But we know this is unlikely to reflect the true scale of the abuse. And we know that some studies have suggested that between 5000 and 8000 forced marriages take place in the UK annually.
At the beginning of the year the Prime Minister set out that in 2014 Britain will lead the charge on the empowerment of girls and women worldwide.
And just this afternoon Parliament agreed a new law, proposed by the MP Bill Cash, and I want to pay tribute to the work Bill has done on getting this Bill through every stage of Parliament.
This Bill will ensure that from now on the Department for International Development is legally obliged to consider gender equality before we fund a programme or give assistance anywhere in the world. And it sends a powerful signal about the UK’s clear intent in this area. It will be something we can take round the world and say to other countries we are doing because we believe this matters.
A Call to Action
Today I want to issue a challenge to everyone here, NGOs, charities, activists, businesses to help us bring Early and Forced Marriage up the global agenda in 2014 and then to keep on pushing.
These are complex issues and we need to work with lots of organisations and partners. And I want to hear from members of this audience on what they think their role can be.
I want to challenge businesses, our UK businesses to play their part to support girls and women in the sorts of countries DFID works in. This could mean sourcing more from women producers and business owners, tackling gender inequality in wages. It could mean offering flexible working arrangements, proper childcare facilities, parental leave and other support to all employees, men and women. Business is part of the solution too.
Finally, I want to urge girls in the UK to join us in our campaigning efforts on FGM and Early and Forced Marriage this year and to stick with us on the road ahead.
We know what a powerful force for change girls can be.
Girls like Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani school girl shot by the Taliban for going to school is now spearheading a global campaign for girls’ education, which is having a huge impact all around the world.
Girls like Fahma Mohamed who got a meeting with the Education Secretary after getting more than 250,000 signatures to her petition urging the Government to write to all schools about Female Genital Mutilation, which is exactly what we’ll be doing.
And girls like Muna Hassan, who will be speaking to us shortly about her campaign on FGM, which she started at the age of 13.
These girls took the causes they felt strongly about right to the top…and put the spotlight on governments and world leaders to demand, and get, change.
I recently visited a secondary school in Wakefield in Yorkshire, Outwood Grange Academy, and as I listened to the girls there, I was struck by how strongly the girls in this country feel about girls their own age having to go through FGM, being forced into marriage, forced into having children before they were ready. They wouldn’t accept it themselves and they don’t want other girls to have to put up with it.
Now I want to know what you think, so tell me on twitter @JustineGreening and #Transformherfuture
I’ll be listening, the Prime Minister will be listening…And we are taking your priorities and making them ours.
In conclusion, you can’t pick and choose on human rights. You can’t decide to go for some matters and raise those, but leave others that feel too hard, too sensitive, too controversial to tackle.
Early and Forced Marriage is a human rights issue.
It’s not focused on enough because it’s complex to address. It takes time to address. Because it means a fundamental shift in attitudes, a shift in investment, in policy. None of these things are easy, but that should never give us the excuse to ignore it
And last year, I remember Tanya (the CEO of PLAN UK) asking me – what is the Government doing about Early and Forced Marriage? I gave an answer, but I knew in my heart it could have been better, and it was up to me and to Ministers to make sure we had a better answer.
I believe Early and Forced Marriage is, in effect, a litmus test for us. If we can ensure voice, choice and control, then girls will be able to decide who and when to marry. And when this happens a better future will open up for them, and for their countries, and for us.
The UK can but we also must show leadership on this, and we will. We will keep building on the growing momentum, until it becomes unstoppable.
DFID’s going to leave no stone unturned in tackling Early and Forced Marriage. We will do this alongside our campaign on FGM, alongside our work to prevent other forms of physical, sexual and psychological violence against women, and together with our work on helping women entrepreneurs get finance and land rights, on family planning, and on education.
By bringing all these things together, by keeping these issues under the spotlight, and by galvanising global action…we can give girls and women around the world the chance to write their own futures, and in doing so I passionately believe we will make all of our futures better too.