GIRLS' rights were front and centre at a high-level panel discussion at the United Nations headquarters in New York on Thursday where UN Women, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and Girls Not Brides, focused on ways to end child marriage.
The event was in observance of the first International Day for the Girl Child, which Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said was an important addition to the UN calendar.
"We must work for the day when every girl is treated with dignity and respect; that is what this observance is about...so that all girls can realise their potential," he told the meeting which was attended by Dr Babatunde Osotimehin, UNFPA executive director; Dr Michelle Bachelet, UN Women executive director; Geeta Rao Gupta, UNICEF deputy executive director; and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, chair of group which founded Girls Not Brides.
Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury, Bangladesh's state minister for women and children affairs, and Salamatou Aghali Issoufa, a youth activist from Niger, as well as NBC news anchor Ann Curry who acted as moderator, were also part of the discussions.
Girls face discrimination, violence and abuse every day and empowering them, Ban said, was a "moral imperative, a matter of basic human justice and equality" that was "critical for achieving the Millennium Development Goals". It also advances economic growth and helps build peaceful societies, he added.
"Investing in girls is a catalyst for changing the world...We must all do our part to let girls be girls, and not brides."
In his five-minute address, the secretary general said education was one of the best strategies for protecting girls against child marriage and referenced 14-year-old Pakistani school girl Malala Yousafzi who was on Tuesday shot in the neck by a Taliban gunman for her work in promoting education for girls in her country. The Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist movement enforces strict interpretation of Sharia law, one feature of which is a repression of women and women's rights.
"The attack on her was abhorrent and cowardly. The terrorists showed what frightens them most — a girl with a book," Ban Ki-moon said. "Nowhere in the world must it be an act of bravery for a young girl to go to school. We must all join together to counter extremism and violence not only in Pakistan, but anywhere that girls' rights and human rights are at risk."
On Wednesday UNICEF said 34 of its country offices last year reported efforts to address child marriage through social and economic change efforts and legal reform .
"In India, one of the countries in the world with the largest number of girls being married before their 18th birthday, child marriage has declined nationally and in nearly all states from 54 per cent in 1992-1993 to 43 per cent in 2007-2008, but the pace of change is slow," the agency said.
"Globally, one in three young women aged 20 to 24 — approximately 70 million — are married before the age of 18. Despite a decline in the overall proportion of child brides in the last 30 years, the challenge persists, particularly in rural areas and among the poorest," the secretary general said in a statement Wednesday.
"If present trends continue, the number of girls who will marry by their 18th birthday will climb towards 150 million in the next decade," he continued.
Meanwhile, the UNFPA regional office for the Caribbean observed the International Day of the Girl Child by hosting a panel discussion on sexual violence under the theme 'Ending sexual impunity: Breakig the silence'.
The rationale, explained assistant country representative Melissa McNeil Barrett, was recent reports of rape and other abuses against women and girls.
"For Jamaica, that (child marriage) is not an issue that we confront in any significant way so we decided that what was relevant for us was the whole issue of sexual violence, particularly in light of what's been happening recently.
"It's been happening for a while, but it's been put in the spotlight now and we decided to explore the different dimensions of the issue with a view to finding some solutions," she t old the Jamaica Observer.
Among the recent events to which Barrett referred was the rape of five women and girls, including and eight-year-old, in Irwin St James last month.