Commonwealth National Human Rights Institutions agreed a new Declaration – the Kigali Declaration – to prevent and end child marriage, after a two-day working session in Kigali, Rwanda.
Participants acknowledged that child, early and forced marriage presents a serious and persistent violation of the rights of young women and girls and causes irreparable damage to victims and society as a whole.
The Kigali Declaration sets out a comprehensive framework for national human rights institutions to take forward and strengthen and calibrate their efforts to prevent and eliminate early and forced marriage in their respective countries.
The Declaration contains a number of key commitments, which includes the monitoring of the enforcement of legislation; improving data collection and promoting compulsory education for girls.
During the working session, participants were able to commence the development of action plans framed within the Declaration in order to give practical effect to and operationalise this document.
Wanjala Wafula, Founder and Director of the Coexist Initiative, a Kenyan community-based organisation working with men and boys to tackle gender-based violence, described the Kigali Declaration as a “milestone” in efforts to protect girls and young women.
He further added: “This Declaration represents a united front. Commonwealth National Human Rights Institutions will be able to bring about change by joining forces in the drive towards eradicating child marriage, an egregious violation of the rights of women and girls.”
It is estimated that over the next decade 140 million girls under the age of 18 years will be forced to marry without their consent, which amounts to a rate of 39,000 girls a day. Half of these girls live in Commonwealth member countries.
Early and forced marriage exposes girls and women to innumerable risks. Subjected to a forced and traumatic initiation into sex, as well as unplanned and frequent pregnancies, child brides suffer long-term, life-threatening physical conditions and illnesses, including HIV/AIDS.
Opening the conference, Head of Human Rights at the Commonwealth Secretariat, Karen McKenzie emphasised the importance of the Declaration to reinforce commitments, and to serve as a basis for a Commonwealth-wide action plan aimed at delivery of tangible results and the measurement of impact.
She said: “A life of dignity and one free of violence is the daily struggle for many women and girls throughout the world. The intensification of efforts to address the root causes of violence against women and girls is an urgent imperative for us all.
“This Declaration will publically underscore certain actions we can now take forward to reduce risk and protect our girls from early and forced marriage.”
The role of national human rights institutions with regard to preventing and eliminating child marriage was first highlighted during the Commonwealth Roundtable on Early and Forced Marriage, which took place in London in October 2013. Participants recognised the fundamental role national human rights institutions play in the promotion and protection of human rights in relation to early and forced marriage.
Sharing key findings in Kenya during the working session, Jedidah Waruhiu, Commissioner of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, reiterated the need for stronger regional and international collaborations to ensure child marriage and gender-based violence are tackled at the highest political levels.
She said: “Declarations do work. If you look at political reform in Africa, it started with a set of declarations, which eventually led to reform. Today, we have taken the first step on a hundred mile march. We are working our way towards improving the situation for the millions of girls and women who have their rights violated on a daily basis.”
The Declaration follows a mandate to address early and forced marriage issued at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2013.
Going forward, the Secretariat will continue to support national human rights institutions to ensure the Kigali Declaration is operationalised into practical action on the ground.
The first Commonwealth Women’s Forum, which will take place at the Heads of Government Meeting in Malta in November 2015, will also provide an additional platform to amplify the Secretariat’s work in this area.