Once again New York is bracing itself for the frenzy of United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) week – its 66th session. For many New Yorkers, the UN’s annual gathering means metal detectors, sealed-off streets, traffic chaos and more helicopters in the sky. Those who can, often leave the city at this time of year.
I understand the frustration of Big Apple residents – I lived there myself for over eight years – but the opening week of the UN General Assembly is about much more than traffic jams and extra security. It’s a unique moment when, for a few days, a significant number of world leaders meet in one place. Outside United Nations itself hundreds of side-events throughout the city give change-makers and activists a chance to reach decision-makers.
Time to put child marriage at the top of the international agenda
So next week Martti Ahtisaari, Gro Brundtland, Desmond Tutu and I will head to New York to persuade global leaders that it’s time to put child marriage at the top of the international agenda. For too long, we have all shied away from talking about child marriage. Some might be reluctant to interfere in what is seen as a family matter, others avoid the issue because it involves questioning cultural and traditional practices.
We understand these sensitivities, but we don’t believe that’s an excuse to ignore the fact that early marriage denies an estimated 10 million girls every year their basic human rights. These girls are among the most vulnerable, invisible and isolated members of our global society. They rarely have any say in the key decisions that affect their lives, such as whom or when they marry, let alone make themselves heard by their leaders.
Listen to the most vulnerable in our society: girls
In New York we want to amplify the voices of girls at risk of child marriage and to share the stories of the child brides we met this summer in Ethiopia.
We want to echo the voice of the 16 year old who remembered her wedding day, not as the happiest moment of her life, but as the day she had to drop out of school to live with and take care of an older man she had never met. We want to speak out for the shy girl wrapped in a white blanket who was married at 10 and had her first child at 13. We want to give a voice to the young girl determined to avoid early marriage and fulfil her dream of becoming a doctor.
Archbishop Tutu will be on stage at the Clinton Global Initiative to call on every world leader to help end child marriage. We’ll join UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to emphasise the links between child marriage and maternal and child health. And we’ll also be at the Social Good Summit to discuss the power of human connection and how we might use digital tools to build an online community of change-makers committed to ending child marriage.
Building momentum to end child marriage
Some might say that the first week of the UN General Assembly and the surrounding events are little more than a talking shop where the global elite rub shoulders. But let’s not forget that the leaders heading to New York are in a position to make decisions that can have a real impact on the lives of millions of girls. Their governments can enact and enforce laws to protect girls from early marriage and support development programmes that make education a more attractive prospect to a girl’s family than marrying her off.
The momentum is building to end child marriage. Inspired by the brave activists who are trying to bring about change in their communities, The Elders have initiated Girls Not Brides, a new global partnership to end child marriage. We hope that you – and the global leaders we meet in New York – will join this effort that has the potential to transform the lives of millions of girls.