Royal Commonwealth Society and Commonwealth Parliamentarians unite to uphold women’s rights

The Royal Commonwealth Society is planning to launch a global campaign against early and forced marriages after new research revealed that of the 20 countries where child brides are most prevalent, 12 are in the Commonwealth.

On the eve of the opening of the 57th Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference in London, the Lord Speaker, Baroness Helene Hayman hosted a dinner for visiting MPs and spoke passionately about the Commonwealth’s theme for 2011, ‘Women as Agents of Change’.

More than 600 MPs and parliamentary staff from 175 Commonwealth parliaments and legislatures are in the British capital to debate developments and issues on the theme “Reinforcing Democracy”.

Speaking at the Commonwealth Club on Friday night, Baroness Hayman welcomed the new campaign which will be put to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Perth later in the year.

She said the issue is one of the greatest barriers to girls’ education worldwide and that the RCS proposal to join forces with UK NGO, Plan, to fight the marriage of girls had “really struck a chord” with her.

According to a report prepared by Plan UK, one in three girls in the developing world is married by 18. However in nations such as Niger, Chad, Mali, Bangladesh, Guinea and the Central African Republic (CAR), the rate of early and forced marriage is 60 per cent and over. It is particularly high in South Asia (46 per cent) and in sub Saharan Africa (38 per cent).

And while the average age at first marriage is slowly rising, the pace of change is slow driving girls into a cycle of poverty, ill health, illiteracy and powerlessness. Girls married early are more likely to suffer violence, abuse and forced sexual relations.

Baroness Hayman, who is planning to step down from the Lord Speaker’s position in September said she had been “thinking about what might be my eighth career”: “One of the issues in which I am interested is working on the scourge of obstetric fistula [a severe injury affecting the bladder and bowel from traumatic birth]. I came to that because I heard about an inspirational woman doctor working in Addis Ababa. It is always the worry in medicine to start thinking about why such problems arise…we start to think, well if had better maternity services and women weren’t in such prolonged labour, we would not have this terrible fistula problem,”

“But then you look further, you see that however good services are, if girls are having babies at 13, 14 and 15 and their pelvises are not sufficiently developed, you still have the terrible effects. Early pregnancies come from societies that don’t value the education of women. Early marriage is the most devastating for a girl’s early years. . .but then you see the problem doesn’t end because those who suffer the fistulas become outcasts, are abandoned as they were taken as child brides then abandoned with a child. And then that child is abandoned and the cycle of deprivation continues.”

Baroness Hayman said highlighting the issue and the Commonwealth’s law officers taking on a clear role represented a “fantastic unifying force” to come together in the push for democracy and human rights.

Ms Claire Whitaker, Deputy chair of the RCS, said that if the Commonwealth is to take seriously the theme of the upcoming conference, ‘Reinforcing Democracy’ it is important to acknowledge early marriage is one of the most challenging human rights issues facing the Commonwealth today.

“It is one that must be addressed through the representation, oversight and legislative efforts available to us all as parliamentarians.” She said.

“Your conference over the coming week provides a perfect opportunity to examine the Commonwealth’s role in reinforcing democracy over the next century, ensuring a place for girls and women at the table”.