“Governments should develop an integrated approach to the special health, education and social needs of girls and young women, and should strictly enforce laws to ensure that marriage is entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.” — Programme of Action, International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), 1994.
Next year, on its 20-year anniversary, international stakeholders will review the ICPD Programme of Action and engage world leaders to create “a renewed consensus and global commitment to create a more equal and more sustainable world.” This “Beyond 2014 Review” is an opportunity to emphasize girls’ rights and to underscore the harm child marriage, a violation of human rights, creates for millions of young girls.
In 1994, 179 countries convened at the ICPD in Cairo to establish guidelines for a rights-based approach to development. They created the ICPD Programme of Action, which affirmed that empowering women by meeting their education and health needs—particularly their ability to control their fertility—were cornerstones for development policies. The document also highlighted the importance of young women entering marriage with “free and full consent.”
As advocates for girls’ rights, we have to reassert this vision of a better world for girls, specifically what it will take to realize it.
Many of the previous blog posts on this site have highlighted the harsh and immediate consequences of child marriage. To be sure, these stories have done much to raise awareness about an issue that has too long not received adequate attention or action. The global statistics, the real-life testimonies, and the devastating impacts of child marriage must continue to drive advocacy.
However, in thinking about the future that we want for all girls, we must simultaneously advocate for change using a framework that not only highlights the harmful consequences married and unmarried girls face, but also affirms that the solutions to end child marriage are multifaceted and require greater investments in girls’ education and the services that extend their social, economic, and civic equality.
The Beyond 2014 Review must acknowledge that it’s not enough for countries to strictly enforce laws prohibiting child marriage. Girls must be empowered to be able to marry with “free and full consent.” The Review should expand on the integrated approach needed to address the “special health, education, and social needs of girls and young women” and acknowledge that girls’ vulnerabilities to child marriage and their abilities to overcome the social pressures and expectations are shaped by the social and cultural contexts in which they live.
Invoking concepts of reproductive justice, an advocacy framework that merges concepts of reproductive rights and social justice, could help promote the better, more equal, and just future we seek for girls. Coincidently, the concept of reproductive justice came out of the ICPD, and has since blossomed into a movement in the U.S.
The dialogue at the 1994 Conference around women’s equality was grounded in human rights. The holistic, forward-thinking discussions that grounded claims and commitments within a human rights framework inspired many American community-organizing groups who attended the ICPD. Among these groups was SisterSong, a woman of color collective based in the United States. After participating in a Black women’s caucus at the ICPD, SisterSong merged the concepts of reproductive rights and social justice and coined the term “reproductive justice.”
SisterSong, along with several other women of color led organizations, embraced reproductive justice, believing the framework to more comprehensively represent the reproductive oppression that women of color experience in the U.S.
The reproductive justice movement shifted (and continues to shift) the dialogue around women’s reproductive rights in the U.S., from a narrow focus of protecting an individual woman’s right to choose to have a legal abortion, to a broader evaluation of how each woman’s autonomy to make reproductive choices are shaped by her race, cultural background, socioeconomic status and ability to access services in her community.
Where child marriage is prevalent, these factors matter greatly and often interact with other factors such as girls’ ethnicity, religion, and caste. Girls’ identities and the realities into which they are born and mature influence their vulnerabilities of marrying as children.
Child marriage is a barrier to girls’ education and their economic security. The practice initiates sexual activity during a period when girls are less knowledgeable about their bodies, their sexual and reproductive health, and their right to access contraception.[i] Child wives are also under intense social pressure to prove their fertility, which makes them more likely to have early and frequent pregnancies.[ii] High fertility rates for girls (15-19) are not solely the result of limited knowledge, increased sex during girls’ reproductive years, and immense sociocultural pressures. Even when child wives have accurate, comprehensive knowledge about how to prevent early pregnancy, their inability to access contraception or to negotiate condom use with their older husbands contributes to high adolescent fertility rates.[iii]
Child marriage systematically undermines girls’ rights within their communities.
Law Student for Reproductive Justice (LSRJ) believes that reproductive justice will exist when all people can exercise their rights and access the resources they need to thrive and to decide whether, when, and how to have and parent children with dignity, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. Placing a responsibility on governments to, not only enforce laws, but also to provide girls with the basic resources they need to thrive and exercise their rights is pivotal to creating an alternative to child marriage. The reproductive justice movement recognizes that it is the role of advocates to empower girls – to lift up their voices and engage them in defining that future.
The Beyond 2014 Review must seize the opportunity to commit to creating a future where all girls have the power to choose if and when to marry or to have children. A future where girls have access to primary and secondary education, health care, and are supported by their communities and governments. A more equal and just future where girls have the autonomy to make decisions about their own lives, with dignity.
Vice President, Board of Directors
Law Students for Reproductive Justice
Law Students for Reproductive Justice trains and mobilizes law students and new lawyers across the country to foster legal expertise and support for the realization of reproductive justice.
[i] WHO. (2008). Why is giving special attention to adolescents important for achieving Millennium Development Goal 5?, Fact Sheet WHO/MPS/08.14. Geneva: World Health Organization.
[ii] Levine, R., Lloyd, C., Greene, M., & Grown, C. (2008). Girls Count: A Global Investment and Action Agenda. Washington DC: Center for Global Development.
[iii] Mensch, B., Bruce, J., & Greene, M. (1999). The Uncharted Passage: Girls ́ Adolescence in the Developing World. New York: Population Council.