Not too long ago UNICEF staff in Uganda shared a story about a girl they called Alice. Alice has spoken at a conference in Uganda recently about how, at 10-years-old, she was forced to drop out of school to prepare for marriage.
But marriage at the age of 10 was only the first injustice. The second? Before marriage, she had to undergo the ritual of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). She was cut in a ceremony with a knife that was used on ten other girls. Disturbing? Yes. Dangerous? Very.
Among the many reasons why we as UNICEF continue to scale up our work to end harmful practices such as child marriage and FGM/C are stories like Alice’s. Alice is a young woman from the north of Uganda where FGM/C is traditionally encouraged as a passage to womanhood. The practice puts young girls at risk of bleeding, infection, sterility and even death. The trauma and the risks of FGM/C, compounded with the responsibilities of being a wife and a mother, meant that Alice, at the young age of 10, had her childhood cut short.
But Alice didn’t want sympathy; she wanted to make sure that the same wouldn’t happen to other girls. She appealed directly to Uganda’s leaders and the families in her region to unite, to support girls to stay in school, and to stop the practice of FGM/C once and for all.
We want all girls to have the same opportunity to a childhood, an education, and a life free of pain and suffering — which is why we, along with our global partners, began a movement to protect girls from the harmful traditional practices that hinder their potential for a better life. On July 14th 2014, we joined hands with the UK Government to gather government leaders, civil society organizations, activists and young women and girls from all over the world at the Girl Summit in London to rally together in the movement against harmful traditional practices such as FGM/C and child and forced marriage.
One year on, the results of the Girl Summit have been promising: as highlighted in the Girl Summit Progress Booklet, 30 governments made commitments towards eliminating the practices; UNICEF’s community-based programmes in high-prevalence countries have expanded thanks to increased resources; Governments of high-prevalence countries are showing greater commitment to ending the practices; and civil society organizations both locally and internationally are more engaged and organized than ever before.
In the past year, several campaigns to end child marriage and FGM/C have been launched, including by both the African Union and the South Asian Initiative to End Violence against Children. The African Union Campaign to End Child Marriage received unprecedented support from African countries. Since the launch of the AU Campaign, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Burkina Faso have launched national campaigns, with Ethiopia recently organizing their first every national girl summit.
UNICEF’s focus has always been on children, especially the most marginalized — and it is our mission to fight for a world in which young girls are able to reach their fullest potential and have their rights upheld by society. An essential part of fulfilling our mission is working to end practices such as FGM/C and child marriage, which hinder a girl’s potential by, among other things, keeping her out of school. After all, an educated girl can better protect herself from FGM/C. An educated girl can choose when and to whom she gets married. An educated girl can have better economic opportunities and take better care of herself and others.
Alice’s plea is slowly being heeded. Increasingly, girls like Alice have the support of their governments. Let’s give Alice our support!
An update on UNICEF’s progress:
As we shape the next generation of development goals, together with governments and partners, we’ve made progress on our key Girl Summit commitments to ending harmful practices, by: getting girls into school; mobilizing families and communities; investing in services; and generating and using data.
- Our major results have been through our country programmes. In 2014, 21 countries worked on ending FGM/C reaching at least 5.6 million people. Working through the UNFPA-UNICEF joint programme on FGM/C in 17 of these countries, some 20,000 young people were mobilized to call for an end to the practice and 1,007 communities publicly declared abandonment of FGM/C.
- Last year, 38 countries programmed to end child marriage. Of these, 18 now have national strategies or plans on child marriage, five of which have been costed. To strengthen global investment to end child marriage, UNICEF embarked on a global programme with UNFPA spanning Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
- UNICEF programmes promote school enrolment and retention for girls. We also support grass-roots work empowering girls with life skills. Community conversations enable families to agree on how to end harmful practices. Innovations such as U-Report and social media are giving visibility to young change makers across communities and countries.
- Since the Girl Summit, UNICEF has helped organize six national launches of the African Union Campaign to End Child Marriage. We have also supported the South Asia Initiative to End Violence against Children action plan to end child marriage.
- Finally, UNICEF data and projections on the future trends in FGM/C and child marriage have informed the debates on the post-2015 development agenda.
Cody Donahue is a Child Protection Specialist based at UNICEF’s Headquarters in New York.