Forced and early marriage – are we right to intervene?

Plan UK have recently launched their latest action as part of their ‘Because I am a girl’ campaign: a move to bring forced and early marriage on to the agenda of the UK government and governments around the world. 10 million girls a year are subjected to forced and early marriage, and although the countries with the highest rates of early marriage are in Africa and Southern Asia, even in the UK in 2010 the UK Government Forced Marriage Unit dealt with 1,735 cases.

Why should we concern ourselves? Firstly, forced marriage is wrong – it is nothing less than an abuse of girls’ human rights, and we simply must not ignore it. Secondly, early marriage leads to early motherhood – and girls who give birth in their teens are more likely to die in childbirth than women who give birth in their twenties. Moreover, early motherhood as often as not leads to a girl’s education stopping in its tracks, with all the consequences this brings: reinforcing cycles of poverty and injustice.

All too often we worry, in our ‘developed’ world, about interfering with cultural traditions and ways of life of others. We agonise over whether we have the right to impose our views on others; and all too often this fear of being seen as illiberal translates into inaction. This is wrong, however; we are all human beings and need to stand up and be counted far more frequently than we are at present. Forced and early marriage is wrong – we should say so.

You can read the full report on Forced and Early Marriage at http://www.plan-uk.org/resources/documents/Breaking-Vows-Early-and-Forced-Marriage-and-Girls-Education/.

And do ‘Take the Vow’ to make a difference to girls across the world.

Setting the scene..making a difference in the world by valuing gender equality and difference

Gender-related issues still sit uneasily in our society, particularly as regards girls and women and their life choices. An intense focus on superficial appearance brings with it a corresponding lack of focus on the great achievements of ordinary and not-so-ordinary women. Persistent, polarising debates in our media focus relentlessly on these choices in a way which is far less common with the choices made by men. Children or child-free? Working or stay-at-home mother? Trivially – is baking akin to slavery, or a feminist act? Deadly seriously – how come we are allowing young girls to be groomed for sex?

Tiring and tiresome these debates may be at times, but they are not surprising: our society is very much in transition as regards its perception of, and reaction to, the role of women and girls in particular. For many centuries, women have not had opportunities that have been open to men – in education, in relationships, in work. In a short space of time, we have changed a significant amount: no-one is in any doubt that strides towards gender equality over the past half century have made an enormous difference to the opportunities for women to be and do what they want and need to do in order to lead fulfilling lives, for their personal benefit and for the benefit of those around them.

So we shouldn’t be too harsh on ourselves – we are living in a crucible where change is occurring before our eyes. And yet we must not be complacent. If there is a persistent gender pay gap, with women faring worse than men, if only 22% of our MPs in the UK are women, and if – crucially – large sections of the population are unhappy with this, then we have work to do before we can genuinely say that we live in an equal world. Globally, in the developing world, there is much more to do. Plan, the children’s charity, reminds us that there are 75 million girls in the world who are not even in education, and this impacts on the economies, lives and families of millions more.

So we have work to do if we want to make the world a better place. It is our responsibility as human beings to take up the mantle and do so. And we must start with the world around us, examining critically the assumptions, prejudices and stereotypes that surround us about gender. We must comment on and share thoughts and ideas that help move us towards a better, deeper, fairer, happier understanding of one another.

My particular personal passion in all this debate is the education and development of girls and young women. Never before have our young women been under so much pressure – not just from the expectations that society places upon them, but through the intensity of communication of these messages. But our online, instant world can excite, inspire and improve as well … and this is the purpose of this blog.