Demanding More for Girls


Today  I was honored to join the CARE delegation at the Girl Summit along with notables from Nike Foundation President Maria Eitel to UK Prime Minister David Cameron. Some of the most inspiring speeches weren’t given by the famous participants in today’s Global Summit such as actress Frieda Pinto, but rather by the infamous but incredibly inspiring youth delegates of the summit.They spoke of stories of their friends and sisters being forced to marry without choice or consent with dire consequences to their health and well-being. They also spoke of their rights and aspirations, including traveling to the moon and brought the entire auditorium to our feet (with hips shaking and hands clapping) to a unique song about empowering girls to reach their full potential.

These girls reminded me of my own daughters and the reason I am so passionate about girls’ rights. I am the mother of two small daughters -- a 2 year old named Violet and a 1 year old named Stella. As I prepared for my trip to London, Violet saw my all-too familiar suitcase and suit jacket and instinctively burst into tears and propelled herself to the floor trying to use her 30-pound body to prevent me from leaving. She clung to my legs and said, “Mommy I don’t want you to go, I miss you and need you with me.” Although she is too you to understand, one day I will tell her about the amazing youth delegates I met at the Girl Summit. I will tell her that in their faces, I see her same strength, hope and desire to fulfill her dreams. I will tell her that not every little girl has the same opportunities, rights and choices that she has.  I will tell her that is why I need to pack my suitcase and go fight. I will tell her that I am fighting not just for her, but for all the little girls, no matter where they are born.  I will tell her that I carry her with me on my travels and her strength and joy inspires me to raise the issue of girls’ rights wherever I go.

The goal of the Girl Summit was to rally a global movement to end the scourge once and for all of child marriage and female genital mutilation.  UNICEF released additional statistics during the Summit on child marriage and the numbers are staggering –-nearly 39,000 girls are married each day. I imagine Violet’s face when I think of those numbers – we are talking about 1 girl every 2 seconds.

Although the numbers are bleak, there is a reason for hope. Foundations, civil society and governments made major new commitments throughout the day on the issue of child marriage and FGM.  The government commitments were particularly inspiring – both donor governments and governments with high prevalence of child marriage - from the Netherlands to Japan to Zambia to Nepal, made significant new commitments today. These new commitments included funding, strengthened implementation of laws and policies, and commitment to partnering with communities and civil society organizations working to combat these harmful practices. Throughout the morning, it was inspiring to see the consensus that laws alone are not enough to curb these trends. This is aligned with our experience at CARE, as we know most countries with high prevalence of child marriage already have laws addressing the issue – what we need is implementation and social norm change. It was also terrific to finally see the global community respond with some measure of long-term and sustainable focus and funding, as we know that to truly end child marriage in a generation, sustained global (and local) commitments, attention and funding is what we need. Gender equality and girls’ issues can’t be some side du jour issue, but rather it must be THE issue driving the global community forward. 

After a morning of inspiring speeches and incredible commitments, we finally made it to the afternoon and I was really looking forward to hearing from the US Government. Representing the US, was USAID Administrator Raj Shah.  Administrator Shah reiterated the US government commitment which puts women and girls at the center of the fight to end global poverty noting, “At the end of the day, child marriage and FGM will only end when extreme poverty does”. Administrator Shah highlighted some of the important work the US is funding around the world, yet he failed to take the opportunity to outline an inter-agency, whole of government strategy with specific goals and benchmarks to address the issue of child marriage. It was disappointing to see the US miss the opportunity to be a leader on this issue, as their colleagues in the UK did.  Although, the US Government did not announce major new strategies to address child marriage, we do know that the US Government does have a great foundation of strategies and policies to build on – I look forward to continued conversations with our US Government partners and champions in order to truly address this issue.

CARE also joined the global community in making new commitments on the issue.  In addition to signing the Girl Summit Charter, CARE committed to ramping up our efforts to help communities in Bangladesh and Nepal through the Tipping Point initiative where we will invest $6.6 million over the next three years addressing the root causes of child marriage. We will also link this work to local and global conversations in order to influence the important policy and research discussions taking place on this issue on both ending child marriage and supporting married adolescents.

Today was a starting point – a starting point that seemed impossible just a few years ago in 2011 when my partners in the Girls Not Brides USA coalition and I were urging the US Government and the global community to take on the issue of child marriage and create the first- ever day of the International Day of the Girl Child.  We engaged our colleagues on Capitol Hill and constituent advocates all around the US to write their US Government officials and call on then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the global community to prioritize the issue of child marriage.  Our 2011 campaign was a challenging one that began the conversation of truly elevating this issue of ending child marriage and supporting married adolescents as a US foreign policy priority. I couldn’t have imagined in 2011, that only a few years later there would be a Global Summit focused on girls and the issue of ending child marriage.   

However, as we all know, this first ever Girl Summit is just the beginning of challenging work ahead. The next phase of this work will focus on the outcomes of these commitments as well as the complex (yet possible!) work within entire families and communities to raise the value girls and end child marriage.

My dream is that one day I will tell Violet about the terrible practice of early and forced married that used to plague the world’s girls but has now been eradicated.  I will tell her that her mommy was there the day that global leaders and local activists came together and said: no more – girls really do matter.  I will not stop until we reach that day.

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Erin Kennedy, CARE USA. Erin is the Sr. Advisor for Advocacy and Partnership at the Gender and Empowerment team at CARE USA, where she oversees the unit’s work on advocacy, representation and partnership. Erin is an experienced and well-known advocate on gender equality and girls’ rights. Erin is also the Co-Chair of GNB USA, the US partnership to end child marriage.  GNB USA is the premier child marriage advocacy coalition in the US, which is comprised of more than 50 organizations with offices in the United States and officially partnered with the GNB Global Secretariat in London. Erin is based in Washington, DC and you can follow her on twitter @erinrosekennedy. Erin is also the mother of two small children. 

You can find more about CARE’s policy recommendations for the Girl Summit as well as CARE’s efforts to prioritize child, early and forced marriage as a specific target within the post-2015 development agenda.