Earlier this week, at the opening of the photo exhibit Too Young to Wed in Geneva, I met a young woman from Zambia who had been taken out of school by her parents so that she could be married. She was rescued by the YWCA International and escaped forced marriage. Still, without the support of her family, she was too poor to afford schooling. Without education and without a husband, she became the scorn of her community. They told her that she would have been better off as a child bride.
As we mark International Women’s Day, I wish we could just celebrate the myriad achievements of women and girls around the world. However, our reality tells us that we still need to have discussions about how to ensure that gender equality becomes a universal reality. Today, there is still not one country in which women and girls are equal to men in political or economic power. For far too many women and girls, the ability to live a healthy and productive life free from violence remains an aspiration.
Nine out of ten girls who give birth between ages 15 and 19 in developing countries are already married, many of them against their will. Complications related to pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death in the same age group in low- and middle-income countries, with girls under 15 being five times more likely to die in childbirth than women over 20.
Despite these disheartening statistics, it is important to note that we have seen achievements. Maternal death has been cut almost by half in the last two decades. The percentage of mothers receiving antenatal care has increased from 63 per cent in 1990 to 81 per cent in 2011. Women’s access to family planning services has also improved.
However, the status of women has not risen substantially. A recent report on the progress since the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) held in 1994 shows that far more needs to be done to ensure that women and girls can exercise their human rights, free from violence and harmful practices.
Yet there is hope. If girls are allowed to stay in school until 18 or beyond and obtain a formal education that includes comprehensive sexuality education, they will experience choice, instead of enduring a life that is dictated by chance.
Educated women and girls acquire more complex skills, are equipped to find better jobs and can decide if and when they want to marry. The same goes for the number and spacing of their children. Empowered women tend to have as many children as they can afford to have.
Women’s empowerment also benefits men. An educated pregnant woman with her own resources doesn’t have to ask for her husband’s permission to guarantee her own health or the health of her baby.
I remember the story of a pregnant woman who needed a C-section and was abandoned at the hospital by her husband. He thought she would bring him bad luck for not being able to deliver the baby naturally. Unfortunately, she couldn’t afford the procedure and did not survive.
That woman didn’t have to die. If she had had a choice, if she had been able to come to the hospital in time, if she had had the resources—or the ability—to claim her rights, she and her baby would be alive now.
And this is why it is so critical to put young women, especially adolescent girls, at the center of development as we continue to fight for human rights, gender equality and social justice.
We must identify and promote innovative methods to allow girls to stay in school and reach their full potential. Simple solutions, like conditional cash transfers, for instance, can help families afford to keep their daughters in school.
As a father, I had the opportunity to educate and empower my four daughters. I told my girls that they are human beings and equal to boys and men. They were able to become professionals and are now holding their own in the world. The fact that my daughters were able to develop their full potential is something I cherish. It is a testament to the value of treating them with equity.
On this International Women's Day, I pledge to renew my commitment and also ask men and women around the world to join the effort. Let’s deliver on the promise of gender equality and sexual and reproductive health and rights for all, especially young girls. Progress for them is progress for all.
--Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin is United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund.