The Honourable State Minister for Women and Children Affairs Meher Afroze Chumki, Sir Fazle Abed, thank you for your warm welcome.
And many thanks to BRAC and everyone supporting today’s event, those who have worked so hard behind the scenes, the contributors to today’s discussion, all those ready to put words into action.
As the UK’s ministerial champion for tackling violence against women and girls around the world, I’m truly delighted to be here in Bangladesh to engage in this very important debate. I want to build on the achievements of the Girl Summit held in London in July, when, with your help, we put this issue at the forefront of development.
My aim is to push for as much progress as possible towards ending all forms of violence against women and girls. I know all of us here share that ambition and that goal. Today I want to encourage and share ideas about what we can all do to achieve it.
First, we all need to be able to explain what this is about, what it really means for women and girls.
Globally hundreds of millions of women alive today were married when they were children. 250 million of these were married before 15. In total, 1 in 3 women experience domestic or sexual violence in their lifetime.
Now Bangladesh has the highest rate of child marriage in South Asia: 65%, the fourth highest worldwide. Among 20-24 year old women, a third were married by the age of 15.
As some of you here know too well, girls who marry earlier are more likely to experience domestic violence, sexual violence, and complications during childbirth. And as many of you have seen, violence has a significant impact on girls’ and women’s ability to get out of poverty.
You can see the same story unfolding elsewhere. I am therefore undertaking a set of visits to work with others around the world to speak out about the reality of child marriage and violence against women and girls.
Every girl has a right to a childhood, and to a life free from violence and poverty.
Many people affected by child, early and forced marriage, by domestic violence, sexual violence and other forms of violence, stay silent about what is happening to them – out of fear or shame, or the honour of the family.
We need to use our voices – all of us, from those affected to leaders across society – to break this silence and speak out.
I have an important message for anyone listening who has been affected by these issues: you did not deserve this, you are not to blame, and you have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.
But actions must speak louder than words. Our commitments to eliminate child marriage and all forms of violence must become a reality. Words are all very good but we actually need to change, in Bangladesh, in the UK, and in all other countries.
Today is about giving girls freedom, choices, the chance to write their own future.
Every young person wants a future that they get to shape. Yet when millions of girls around the world reach adolescence, a time when their world should be expanding, they find it shrinking.
Young people are a powerful force for change. Half of the world’s population is under 25. As the next generation of leaders, they can create a positive future for girls and women and a better world for families and nations.
Girls themselves must be at the centre of this action. They are the ones whose rights, whose bodies and whose lives are at stake.
And I have to say girls and women can’t do it on their own. Men and boys also have a great role to play in creating a world where all children live free from harmful practices – so their sisters, wives and daughters can have a better future.
The Girl Summit hosted by the UK government and UNICEF this summer mobilised domestic and international efforts to end female genital mutilation and child, early and forced marriage within a generation.
In advance of the summit we hosted #YouthForChange. By young people for young people, it kickstarted action for girls’ rights.
Some of you in the audience today were at both of these landmark events – people like Mitu and Tanya, the young, inspiring Bangladeshi girl cricketers working with BRAC. You called for global action, and you are succeeding.
In the heart of communities and families in the UK and across South Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe, more people are saying no to these practices. Governments are already responding and have passed laws and developed plans.
The Girl Summit resulted in over 470 governments, organisations and individuals signing a charter calling for an end to these practices. 170 commitments were made to take action.
A new international team will publish an annual report, tracking progress. It will include UN agencies, governments and civil society organisations. Bangladesh is right at the forefront.
Your government committed to:
Develop a national plan of action by the end of 2014
Revise the ‘Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929’ by 2015
Make sure no marriage is taking place below the age of 15 by 2021
Reduce the number of girls getting married between 15 and 18 by more than one third by 2021, and
End child marriage completely by 2041.
The commitment shown by your government and civil society organisations such as BRAC illustrates how Bangladesh is driving change to end child marriage.
In the UK we are also taking action. We want to send a clear and strong message: forced marriage is totally unacceptable, illegal, and will not be tolerated in the UK. We have taken decisive action to criminalise it. Concerns about culture must not get in the way.
The introduction of new offences this summer will not only ensure increased support and protection for victims, but also that perpetrators are properly punished.
Our Forced Marriage Unit is assisting victims, ensuring people working with them know how to approach such cases, and running awareness campaigns to highlight the right to choose and the fact that help is available. Overseas, the unit provides consular assistance.
In Asia, the Middle East and Africa, women and girls, community figureheads and politicians are leading movements to end child, early and forced marriage.
The UK government is getting behind this leadership, to support this momentum and accelerate the pace of change.
That’s why we’re developing a new £25 million programme to prevent child and forced marriage in 12 developing countries, including Bangladesh.
We are working with Canada and the Netherlands to fund this joint programme with UNICEF and the United Nations Population Fund. In the next few months it will start to identify priorities and actions. We are also exploring how to help civil society, which has such a crucial role to play in challenging harmful social norms and supporting empowerment of girls and women.
All of this support will help to drive existing efforts and realise an end to child, early and forced marriage.
It is truly fantastic to see so many young people here today, ready to take action. You young people are the change makers. Start conversations in your communities, speak to your friends, families and schools. Start a campaign. Together let’s get hundreds, thousands, millions more voices demanding change for girls.
Everyone can help to create this change for future generations. We must all play our part to alter girls’ social expectations, to see them as valuable members of society, sources for hope for the future, and investments worth making.
We ask those responsible for protecting girls and enabling their future potential – parents, communities, leaders, government, the private sector and the global community – to fulfil every girl’s aspirations.
To have a whole population working for the prosperity of Bangladesh - not just half of them.
That’s why the UK government is looking to develop #YouthForChange as a youth-led initiative to take action. I welcome your thoughts on how we do this – please tweet @YouthForChange.
The future isn’t fixed. Together, if we raise our voices loud enough, we can build a better world for girls, and therefore a better world for everyone.