Acknowledging that child, early, and forced marriage presents a serious and persistent violation of the rights of young women and girls and causes irreparable damage to victims and society as a whole, participants at a human rights conference in May in Rwanda signed the Kigali Declaration at a gathering of members of the African Commonwealth.
The declaration sets out a comprehensive framework for human rights institutions to strengthen efforts to prevent and eliminate early and forced marriage in their respective countries.
The declaration contains a number of key commitments, including monitoring the enforcement of legislation, improving data collection, and promoting compulsory education for girls. During the two-day conference, participants began developing an action plan to put the declaration’s goals into effect.
Wanjala Wafula, founder and director of the Coexist Initiative, a Kenyan community-based organization working with men and boys to tackle gender-based violence, described the Kigali Declaration as a “milestone” in efforts to protect girls and young women. “The declaration represents a united front. Commonwealth National Human Rights Institutions will be able to bring about change by joining forces in the drive towards eradicating child marriage, an egregious violation of the rights of women and girls.”
It is estimated that over the next decade 140 million girls under the age of 18 years will be forced to marry without their consent—a rate of 39,000 girls a day. Half of these girls live in Commonwealth member countries, Wafula said.
Early and forced marriage exposes girls and women to innumerable risks. Subjected to a forced and traumatic initiation into sex, as well as unplanned and frequent pregnancies, child brides suffer long-term, life-threatening physical conditions and illnesses, including HIV/AIDS.
Opening the conference, the head of Human Rights at the Commonwealth Secretariat, Karen McKenzie, emphasized the importance of the declaration to reinforce commitments, and to serve as a basis for a Commonwealth-wide action plan aimed at delivery of tangible results and the measurement of impact.
“A life of dignity and one free of violence,” McKenzie declared, “is the daily struggle for many women and girls throughout the world.” Intensifying efforts to address “the root causes of violence against women and girls is an urgent imperative for us all.”
The role of national human rights institutions in preventing and eliminating child marriage was first highlighted in London, in October 2013, during a Commonwealth Roundtable on Early and Forced Marriage. Participants recognized then the fundamental role national human rights institutions play in promoting and protecting girls, and young women’s human rights in the realm of early and forced marriage.
Sharing key findings in Kenya during the working session, Jedidah Waruhiu, commissioner of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, reiterated the need for stronger regional and international collaborations to ensure that child marriage and gender-based violence are tackled at the highest political levels.
“Declarations do work. If you look at political reform in Africa, it started with a set of declarations, which eventually led to reform,” Ms. Waruhui said. “Today, we have taken the first step on a hundredmile march. We are working our way towards improving the situation for the millions of girls and women who have their rights violated on a daily basis.”
The first Commonwealth Women’s Forum, which will take place at the Heads of Government Meeting in Malta in November 2015, will also provide an additional platform to amplify the Secretariat’s work in this area.