Nigerian girls on Thursday joined their colleagues in the world to celebrate the maiden International Day of the Girl-Child with stakeholders advocating urgent end to teenage marriage in the country.
Before now, girls in some part of the world particularly from the northern part of Nigeria are forced into early marriage thus truncating their search for education and better life in future.
But worried by this trend the United Nations in the maiden edition of the International Day of the Girl Child, chose ‘Ending Child Marriage’ as the theme of the celebration.
The UN has dedicated October 11 of every year as a day during which the challenges facing the girl child would be highlighted, strategies to empower them would be discussed and issues that affect their fundamental human rights would be dealt with.
In his message during the event, the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, said that investing in girls is a moral imperative – a matter of basic justice and equality.
“It is an obligation under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. It is also critical for achieving the Millennium Development Goals, advancing economic growth and building peaceful, cohesive societies.
“For this inaugural day, the United Nations is focusing on the issue of child marriage. Globally, around one in three young women aged 20 to 24 — approximately 70 million — were 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. 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 said.
Ki-Moon added that child marriage divorces girls from opportunity and jeopardises their health, increases exposure to violence and abuse, and results in early and unwanted pregnancies – an often life-threatening risk.
“If a mother is under the age of 18, her infant’s risk of dying in its first year of life is 60 per cent greater than that of an infant born to a mother older than 19. Education for girls is one of the best strategies for protecting girls against child marriage. When they are able to stay in school and avoid being married early, girls can build a foundation for a better life for themselves and their families. And if they have already been married young, access to education, economic opportunities and health services — including HIV prevention and sexual and reproductive health — will help enrich their lives and enhance their future.
“I urge governments, community and religious leaders, civil society, the private sector, and families – especially men and boys, to promote the rights of girls, including through the relevant conventions, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, and the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development. Let us be guided by the theme of today’s observance – “my life, my right, end child marriage” – and let us do our part to let girls be girls, not brides,” he said.
In Nigeria, a non-governmental organisation, Beyond the Classroom Foundation and HACEY’s Health Initiative, gathered over 200 secondary school girls together to celebrate the day at the University of Lagos, Akoka, Lagos under the sub-theme ‘Health, Empowerment, and Rights of the Girl Child.’
During the event, some successful women from various walks of life took time out from their busy schedules to spend time with the girls.
One of them, a UN Ambassador, Mrs. Lami Phillips, shared her experience as teenager with the girls.
She said, “I grew up in a Christian home. Every morning my parents and I would have devotion. To my parents, instilling godly virtues in me was very important. I eventually grew with two principles- ‘I can do all things through Christ that strengthens me’ and ‘I am what I think I am.’ These two principles helped me face challenges.
“There were times I found myself in the midst of men and people who were much older than I, but I didn’t feel intimidated. I believed in myself. This mentality has kept me going,” she said.
Advising the girls, Phillips said, “I want you all to know that there are no limits in life except the ones you place for yourself. You must dream big. Stay away from things that could jeopardise your future.”
The representative of the Lagos State Ministry of Education, Mrs. Eke Musa, urged other non-governmental organisations to support the government in protecting the girl child.
She said, “I appreciate the organisers of today’s programme. The government alone cannot deal with the issues surrounding the girl child. We all need to join hands together to protect our girls. The society also needs to be aware of the rights of the girl child and girls need to be aware of their rights.”
The President, Women Arise, Dr. Joe Okei-Odumakin, urged the government to set up a National Children’s Commission.
“This body would help defend the rights of the girl child. The government should also focus on reducing inequalities between boys and girls and change discriminating laws against the girl child.
“Our girls deserve the right to be protected. The more united we are in asserting rights of the girl child; the better for our nation. We must abolish all policies that have been working against the girl child. Impunity must come to an end. Rape cases should be dealt with thoroughly and not ignored,” she said.
A pupil of Baptist High School, Lagos, who identified herself as Rusima, urged her colleagues to stay away from immoral dealings.
“We have heard a lot about HIV/AIDS. The disease is on the rampage. I urge young girls not to get sexually active. They should not be involved in sex until their marriage,” she said.