From February 27-March 9, Plan participated in the annual session of the Commission on the Status of Women, held at the UN in New York. Nine girls from Plan communities around the world joined us, and represented Plan and their countries at key events. In one event, the girls participated in a panel discussion moderated by journalist and campaigner Mariane Pearl. Below is Mariane's reflection on meeting the girls at the event.
Posted by Mariane Pearl
Fatmata, 17, will have to keep her eyes down when she addresses community leaders back in rural Sierra Leone. She will have to keep her voice low and act modestly. But she will say what’s on her mind. The same way she told a room filled with policy-makers, ministers, journalists, MP’s and activists gathered in New York City for the 56th Commission on the Status of Women how she feels about early and forced marriage.
“It is a disease, a virus that threatens everyone in my country”.
Fatmata is a quiet girl with a forceful voice: “I stand on behalf of the girls of Sierra Leone, for our rights to chose who we marry and when. Anyone who tries to enforce early marriage should be imprisoned for 15 years”.
Communicating with the assembly of leaders is the most difficult task that awaits Fatmata in the near future. But she will also act in plays, dramatizing the issue to allow people in rural areas to understand the consequences of early marriage. She will talk on the radio, write and perform songs, put up posters on walls and distribute leaflets, while studying to become an accountant and working her way through college.
Fatmata and her four siblings were raised by a single mother who was herself forced to marry at 14 but has determined that her daughters should get access to education. She has shown thereby that radical change is possible, embodied in Fatmata’s determination to end the harmful practice. Close to 10 million girls worldwide are forced to marry older men when they are still children.
Fatmata and Maryam who attended the event from rural Pakistan brought the numbers to life by describing what girls are going through around them. Maryam is only 15 and thanks to her enlightened parents she will pursue her dream of becoming a software engineer before she even thinks of getting married. But few are that lucky and she shared stories about young girls such as her neighbor Praveen (not her real name) who is 12.
The first thing Praveen did upon entering her husband’s home was to look around for toys. Then she ate the tomatoes her mother-in-law had given her to cook. She was quickly sent back to her father.
“Now” Maryam explains “Praveen’s weeping all day. She’s too young to comprehend the meaning of marriage and divorce but she’s old enough to understand that her life is ruined”.
Coming to the UN in New York is these girls’ opportunity to ask for change. Last year girl delegates from the Because I am a Girl campaign successfully lobbied the UN to establish an international day of the girl. The first ever will take place on October 11, 2012.
This year, Maryam has brought a list of recommendations for her audience. She asks that girls be trusted and parents educated, she asks that the bitter realities of those marriages be openly discussed. She asks that we all join hands to allow those girls to dream and build hopes for their future. Early and forced marriage is a complex problem involving poverty and ignorance, health issues and violence.
But the most delicate aspect might be the deep-rooted traditions that remain unchallenged. Or maybe not.
Maryam and Fatmata‘s childish voices spoke up to say that they were ready to take on the task to convince entire communities that girls matter and that their education has the potential to seriously help relieve poverty. “What do you think will be the most difficult part?” I asked Maryam. “Convincing the girls themselves,” she said, “they have no awareness. But I will show them a photograph of the all the people who attended our session. I will tell them: ”look, we’re not alone anymore. You see these people? They care about us”.
Because I am a Girl campaign will be launched on October 11, 2012 – the first ever International Day of the Girl.