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“International law is clear: No matter who you are, or where you live, your voice counts. On this Day, let us unite to defend your right to make it heard.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon

Today is Human Rights Day. This year’s theme is my voice counts, highlighting that far too many groups and individuals face deeply entrenched discrimination that keeps them from exercising their rights. For the millions of already-married children—and for the millions of young girls and boys who live where child marriage is a socially acceptable practice—today (and every day) we aim to ensure that their voices and stories are heard.

Stephanie Sinclair/VIIStreet girls attend classes at Godanaw Rehabilitation Integrated Project, GRIP,  in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on May 30, 2007. This is a local humanitarian shelter that has provided skills training and health care to some thousands of street girls--three-quarters of them escapees from early marriages in the countryside.

Stephanie Sinclair/VII
Street girls attend classes at Godanaw Rehabilitation Integrated Project, GRIP, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on May 30, 2007. This is a local humanitarian shelter that has provided skills training and health care to some thousands of street girls–three-quarters of them escapees from early marriages in the countryside.

Sixty-four years ago on December 10, 1948, the international community signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 16 in the Declaration states that marriage should be “entered only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.”

Child marriage violates the standard of full and free consent: the majority of child marriages occur under intense parental pressure and childhood dependency on adult decision-making leave girls vulnerable to collusion and coercion.

General Recommendation 21in the Convention on the Elimination on All Forms of Discrimination against Women is more explicit. It stipulates 18 years as the minimum age for marriage for males and females; the minimum age when young people attain “full maturity and capacity to act.” When girls marry as children, their rights to education, non-violence, and a life of health and equal opportunity are also violated.

Stephanie Sinclair/VIIRadha Bhamwari, 15, observes herself in a cracked mirror the day before her wedding. Three young sisters Radha Bhamwari, 15, Gora Bhamwari, 13, and Rajni Bhamwari, 5, were married to their young grooms, who were also siblings, on the Hindu holy day of Akshaya Tritiya, called Akha Teej in North India. Despite legislation forbidding child marriage in India (Child Marriage Restraint Act-1929) and the much more progressive Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (2006) and many initiatives to prevent child marriage, marrying children off at a very tender age continues to be accepted by large sections of society.

Stephanie Sinclair/VII
Radha Bhamwari, 15, observes herself in a cracked mirror the day before her wedding. Three young sisters Radha Bhamwari, 15, Gora Bhamwari, 13, and Rajni Bhamwari, 5, were married to their young grooms, who were also siblings, on the Hindu holy day of Akshaya Tritiya, called Akha Teej in North India. Despite legislation forbidding child marriage in India (Child Marriage Restraint Act-1929) and the much more progressive Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (2006) and many initiatives to prevent child marriage, marrying children off at a very tender age continues to be accepted by large sections of society.

It’s the international community’s responsibility to not only acknowledge children’s right to be heard, but to prioritize action in support of ending child marriage—a human rights violation and form of gender-based violence that the UN estimates will affect 14.2 million girls before the next Human Rights Day.

We should listen. And take action.

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