Young women’s leadership on human rights

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Tuesday, 12 July, 2011

At the World YWCA International Women's Summit in Zurich, July 2011, Mary Robinson speaks about the role of girls and young women as human rights defenders and leaders of their communities.

It is an enormous honour to have my name associated with awards for young women’s leadership on human rights. I was quite stunned in Nairobi four years ago, when the then Secretary General, Musimbi Kanyoro, made that announcement! Now, I am deeply moved at the way young women all over the world, supported by their local YWCA, have been showing what human rights mean to them, how they can be protected, and the huge potential of young women to be local human rights defenders.

It is worth recalling that it was a woman, Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the committee which drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10th December 1948. She captured the essence of human rights as follows: “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world... Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

Much has happened since then, including the establishment of UN Women, whose executive director, Michelle Bachelet, spoke so eloquently this morning laying out the nexus and agenda for women and girls over the next decade. But she and her colleagues can’t deliver that agenda on their own. What is needed is millions of examples of young women making a difference “in small places close to home”, as the award winners have done so magnificently. Even small stands make a difference: saying no to an improper advance, grouping together for self-protection; having the courage to insist on staying in second level school; shaking off that feeling of being second class and insisting on the dignity of equality with young men while preserving an awareness of the special potential of being a young woman.

This International Women’s Summit, the outcome of months of hard work by Secretary General Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda and her team at World YWCA, is a wonderful resource for all of us who want to recharge our batteries and re-energise ourselves in our commitment to the human rights of girls and women worldwide. I look forward to participating in the intergenerational dialogue on shared, transformative leadership later this morning. Believe me, I will be listening carefully, as I have much to learn about the perspectives and priorities of young women today. Every generation has its own sense of what is urgent and important, and how to communicate positive messages well.

I learned an important lesson from Nyaradzayi when we were together in Addis two years ago, supporting the Sudanese Women’s Forum on Darfur. We were both meeting members of the standing committee of the Forum, who were drawn from Khartoum, Juba, the three provinces of Darfur itself and the Darfuri diaspora. I was about to start the substantive discussion, when Nyaradzayi gently suggested that perhaps we might first tell a little about ourselves so that we would know each other better before we got down to business. I asked her to start, and she spoke about the difficulties she had suffered as a young girl in Zimbabwe. Each of the Sudanese women spoke, as did I and a colleague from my organisation, Realizing Rights. It turned out that each of us – in very different ways – had been helped and supported by our fathers. When we did start the substantive discussion we were talking as friends with something very deep in common. It is a lesson I have never forgotten.

There are lessons to be learned from the innovative ways women exercise leadership. It tends to be more enabling, participatory, respectful of others and problem solving. We are finding interesting ways of connecting women exercising leadership at grassroots level with women who are in positions of power and influence. More and more, we have to create space for girls and young women to be part of this new dynamic.

At long last the world itself has woken up to the huge, largely untapped, potential of girls and young women. Governments are beginning to listen to development experts who advise that educating girls is the single most effective development step any government can take. And yet, millions of girls – from birth to womanhood – have no sense of dignity or rights, are slaves and chattels, live in situations of degrading poverty, suffer sexual and domestic violence, fall victims to HIV/AIDS and are raped as a form of warfare. The scale of the inequality and violation of rights is such that we need broad alliances and partnerships to tackle particular problems.

In this context I want to raise a specific issue of human rights of girls close to my heart. As a member of The Elders – a group of leaders brought together by Nelson Mandela – I am proud to be part of a growing movement to end child marriage, a harmful traditional practice that has remained hidden for far too long.

Child marriage is estimated to affect some 10 million girls every year. I emphasise girls because, although boys are also married young in some communities, the detrimental impact of child marriage on girls is far greater – and girls are affected in far higher numbers.

What does child marriage mean for these girls?

I was in Ethiopia a few weeks ago with some of my fellow Elders – Graça Machel, Gro Brundtland and Desmond Tutu. We travelled to the north of the country, Amhara, where 80 per cent of girls are married before they reach 18 – and where the most common age of marriage for girls is 12. We met many girls and young women who had been married at 8 or 10 and had their first babies at 13.

None remembered her wedding day with any joy. It is a day of fear, when girls are simply told ‘this is the man you will marry’ and have to live with him. Sex is not something they can negotiate and they are expected to prove their fertility quickly. One girl said when I asked her what she remembered about her marriage: “I had to leave school.”

The risks associated with young motherhood are shocking. Complications arising from pregnancy and childbirth are the biggest killer of girls aged 15-19 in the developing world.

Child marriage is a fundamental breach of human rights – it contravenes the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by all but 2 countries – and is outlawed in almost every state in the world. It continues because we don’t talk about it, and because so many girls have no voice and no choice about their lives.

As Elders, we are building a global alliance to end child marriage – and we are committed to amplifying the voices of girls and defending their rights.

You, as young women leaders, have a crucial role to play in defending the rights of the millions of child brides who have no power to speak out and no one to speak out for them.

The most effective way to bring about the change we need is to empower girls themselves. But they need examples to follow. They need young women leaders to encourage them to stand up and have their voices heard. As Deepak Chopra put it: “The possibility of stepping onto a higher plane is there for everyone. It requires no force, effort or sacrifice. It involves little more than changing our ideas about what is normal.” In cities, town, villages and rural areas around the world young women have to change the idea ‘about what is normal’ for girls. The winners of these awards have shown us how, and have illustrated the wonderful potential for humanity that can be unleashed. I congratulate them warmly.

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