Justine Greening: End child marriage in a generation

Speech by the International Development Secretary pledging that Britain will lead international efforts to end child marriage within a generation.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Justine Greening at a symposium to end child marriage in Lusaka, Zambia

Thank you for that introduction and for inviting me to speak. I’m truly honoured and humbled to be with you today at the launch of this important regional symposium on ending child marriage.

I would like to acknowledge the presence and leadership of the First Lady Dr Kaseba, Madame Graca Machel, Ministers Luo and Wina, other ministers present and the leaders of international and local organisations with us tonight.

In particular I would like to recognise the many Chiefs and Chieftanesses present and commend your vital leadership on this issue at the grassroots.

I am told that in Zambia I can now say “all protocols observed” and I will not offend anyone!

I’m delighted to be here in Zambia for your 50th anniversary year. Since independence, the UK and Zambia have remained firm friends and we continue to be a proud supporter of your development.

In recent years Zambia is a country that has enjoyed impressive economic growth. 1.2 million more children are now in school. Child mortality has fallen by over 40%. And I commend the Zambian Government’s substantial commitment to scaling up social protection to those living in extreme poverty.

I believe Zambia’s economic and social development has been underpinned by its political development. Today Zambia is known across Africa as a model of democracy. Zambian people are not only voting in free and fair elections, they have a genuine say in the running of their country.

At the same time we know there are still real development challenges for Zambia to overcome. Zambia is growing fast but it is becoming more unequal. The top 10% of Zambians control over half of national income…the bottom 60% share less than 14%. Too many people, especially girls and women, are locked out of the new opportunities that are being created.

For Zambia to move beyond poverty and aid economic growth has to be faster and sustainable growth that creates jobs for everyone…which I know is a huge priority for the Zambian Government which we recognise here in Britain.

We recognise that Zambia’s growth is in Britain’s interests as well as yours. And the British High Commission here is working closely with the Zambian government to improve our two countries’ business links and promote trade.

Later in the year Britain will be sending two trade missions to Zambia. We are going for growth with you…and I firmly believe that in the future the relationship between our two countries will be based on trade not aid.

Gender equality and development

We all know, another huge development challenge facing Zambia is ensuring that girls and women have a chance to reach their full potential. Despite progress on gender inequality girls and women face discrimination in every aspect of life…girls are more likely to drop out of school…women have less access to land, credit, markets and jobs…women remain under-represented in politics.

Ultimately Zambia will not truly develop to its full potential if half its population is locked out from reaching theirs.

And that’s why this symposium is so important. Child marriage remains in so many countries a really critical symptom of the low status of girls and women…and of the day to day neglect of their rights.

In the past this issue has gone largely unacknowledged and untackled by the development community…it’s been written off as too entrenched, too sensitive and too difficult to focus on.

But that is changing…changing because of the efforts of so many of you here today…changing because we are now seeing girls and women, men and boys, local and national leaders…all speaking out against this harmful practice…and Zambia playing a leading role in this movement.

Today I want to set out why I believe this issue is so important to development…and how the UK will walk down the path of development with Zambia…supporting your efforts to end child marriage…and how we want to play a role in bringing together governments, charities, businesses and activists from around to rally a global movement for change.

The scourge of child marriage

To begin with I want to be very clear that child marriage is not a sideline issue…it affects about 14 million girls every year. One in three girls in the developing world are married by age 18, and one in nine are married by age 15. Some are as young as eight years old.

And you only have to talk to girls themselves and hear how they feel about it to grasp how wrong this practice is.

Earlier today I spoke to some girls in Misisi compound who have been victims of child marriage. They spoke to me of the hardships and traumas they had experienced and what it was like to live with all the pressures of being a child mother.

What strikes you is that these girls have not just been robbed of a childhood…they’ve been robbed of a future that could have been very different…a chance to unlock their full potential.

At the moment too many girls in Zambia, and around the world, reach adolescence and find that their future is already written… it is already mapped out for them. A life without opportunities to get a job or finish an education, to travel or gain different experiences. It is a life that has been mapped out that leaves marriage the only option.

Every girl who is married as a child is a tragedy…a tragedy for her but also a tragedy for her children…for her country’s development.

We know that complications of pregnancy and childbirth are a leading cause of death among adolescent girls from the ages of 15 to 19. While the children of child brides are 60% more likely to die before their first birthday than the children of mothers who are over 19.

Child marriage is also closely linked to low levels of economic development…Girls who marry young are more likely to be poor and stay poor.

Zambia and child marriage

The alternative is so much better…girls will make good choices if we let them. They can choose to stay at school, marry later and have fewer children. When a girl in the developing world receives seven or more years of education, she marries later, has fewer children…and these children are more educated and healthier.

Delaying marriage and enabling girls to improve their education, health and job opportunities helps to break the cycles of poverty that can pass from generation to generation.

So overcoming the negative impacts of child marriage isn’t just the right thing to do…it’s in everyone’s interests…most especially the girls’ interests and their children’s interests.

But we know this isn’t going to be easy.

In Zambia, the National Child Policy defines children as persons below the age of 18. Yet in reality two in five girl children are married before they are 18. And nearly twice as many girls marrying early in rural areas than in urban.

I know how seriously you are taking this issue…and my speech today is to stand in solidarity with you.

Zambia’s Minister Luo and her Ministry of Chiefs & Traditional Affairs are showing real leadership…with Zambia one of the first AU countries to launch an ending child marriage campaign. I’ve been so impressed Zambia’s First Lady Dr Christine Kaseba’s campaigning efforts which are internationally respected.

There is no single approach to tackling child marriage…we can leave no stone unturned in our task of improving girls’ lives.

I know it’s also a huge priority for the Government to address the legal inconsistencies…which Dr Kaseba has highlighted on several occasions …whereby Zambia’s statutory law prohibits child marriage but customary laws allow it when a children to marry when they reach puberty.

And it is good to see that the Government of Zambia is working collaboratively with a host of ministries including that of Ministry of Gender & Child Development, the Ministry of Community Development Mother & Child Health, the Ministry of Youth & Sports and the Ministry of Justice.

And this is not just about changing laws and closer government working…it’s about changing the attitudes of people and communities around the worth of girls and their contribution to society. And I’m really impressed by your work with traditional, community leadership on this.

Because ultimately it’s going to take a real coalition of voices…girls and boys, parents, traditional, religious and community leaders, politicians and the international community…all speaking out against this harmful practise of child marriage.

UK Support

The UK is determined to support Zambia’s efforts…and wider efforts across the world to end child and forced marriage…and we want to play our part in a number of ways.

Firstly, education is fundamental to providing an alternative to marriage…ensuring girls have a chance to support themselves and their families through work. And we know parents who let their children go to school are more likely to allow them to get a job afterwards.

Many girls in Zambia, and around the world, are unable to finish school.

That’s why over the next 3 years the UK has committed over 380million kwacha (£37.5m) to Zambia’s education sector, which will help an additional 30,000 girls into primary and secondary school.

After education getting a good job is key to girls’ empowerment. We have also committed a further 150million kwacha (£15m) to support Zambia’s technical and vocational training system. This will generate almost 13,000 graduates with skills that are relevant to the market place and will offer 1,000 scholarships for under-privileged females, rural youth and disabled learners.

The Adolescent Girls Empowerment Programme that I visited today is also supporting a further 10,000 adolescent girls in rural and urban Zambia to complete their education, delay the age of first pregnancy and increase their life skills including money management. The girls meet weekly with a mentor from their community and follow a tailor made curriculum aimed at increasing their self-esteem, confidence and knowledge of their rights and sexual and reproductive health.

We also recognise that violence against women and girls is a huge problem…and girls who marry earlier are more likely to suffer domestic violence and sexual abuse.

Together with USAID we are working to provide critical response and care services for survivors of gender based violence and to prevent its occurrence in our Stamping Out and Preventing Gender based Violence programme…which operates in 25 districts in Zambia.

This programme also comprises an Ending Child Marriage component…where we will work directly with the Ministry of Chiefs and Traditional Affairs, civil society groups and traditional community leaders.

Finally, it’s clear that teenage pregnancy is both a cause and a consequence of early marriage…nearly a third of 15 to 19 year girls have been pregnant or have a child.

There is a huge demand for family planning methods…and I commend the Zambia Government for their work in this area recently. The UK is also providing 150m kwacha (£14.8m) of support to this effort to enable an extra 200,000 Zambian women and girls have control over their own fertility.

None of these programmes can by themselves be transformative…but taken together…with the other work going on…they are creating an unstoppable momentum.

And I’m determined that the UK will scale up our work on child and forced marriage further…in particular I want to do more research on what works. So we can make sure every pound, every kwacha is making the biggest difference to girls and women in Zambia.

An international agenda: Girl Summit

We also want to take the momentum in countries like Zambia and help drive tackling child marriage up the global agenda…

Child and forced marriage is an international problem…including in Britain where we have recently introduced new legislation to make forced marriage a criminal offence.

And Britain will shortly be hosting a Girl Summit to galvanise international efforts to end child and forced marriage altogether, as well as another harmful practice, female genital mutilation.

This Summit will take place in London on 22 July and we’ll be bringing together governments, NGOs, charities, activists, businesses, young people… to rally a global movement for consigning child and forced marriage and female genital mutilation to the history books everywhere…including in Britain.

At the event, co-hosted by UNICEF, we’ll be hearing from girls and women and community leaders about their experiences. We’ll be looking at what programmes have worked and ensuring that we can learn from each other.

And our ambition is to secure a huge range of commitments from governments, businesses and charities… with everyone agreeing a declaration to end child and forced marriage and female genital mutilation in a generation.

I believe we can use this event to be a breakthrough moment for generations of girls and women.

I am very pleased that Zambia will be attending, including Honourable Minister Luo, will attend the Girl Summit, alongside other African heads of state and first ladies. Your testimony will be the fuel that lights the fire of progress for all of us.


Too many girls and women across the globe are still being locked out of progress…denied a chance to write their own future.

Child Marriage is one of the clearest examples of this. And that’s why Zambia and the UK are taking action to end this harmful practise.

There is no one single step that can prevent child marriage. It’s about getting girls into school and keeping them there. It’s about ensuring they have access to sexual and reproductive health services. It’s about giving girls economic opportunities and training. It’s about working with families and local communities so child marriage is seen as holding girls back from their lives…not an introduction to it.

When all these things happen a better future will open up for girls, and for their countries, and indeed for all of us.

So once again I congratulate Zambia for its leadership on this issue. Thank you for allowing me to take part in this important symposium…and I look forward to welcoming you to our Summit in July.

Published 10 July 2014