You are here

Your Excellencies; distinguished guests; ladies and gentlemen, It is my pleasure to open, on behalf of the United Nations Population Fund, the first European exhibition of this magnificent, 100-meter long collaborative artwork entitled “Stop Early Marriage.”

Today’s event would not be possible without the coordinated efforts of the Spanish Development Cooperation; the Embassy of Spain in Ethiopia; UNFPA; and all of our partners in fighting gender-based violence, among them the artists joining us this morning, who have committed their support, time and talents to the “Stop Early Marriage” Campaign. I congratulate all involved for making this possible.

We have chosen to hold this event at an appropriate time. Just over a week ago, UNFPA released its 2008 report on the State of the World Population, with the theme “Gender, Culture and Human Rights.” Tomorrow, we observe the International Day Against Gender-Based Violence, which kicks off the global “16-day campaign” to end Violence Against Women. Finally, on December 10, we will observe the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – a document that underpins all development work.

The themes that cut across all of these noteworthy events are, not surprisingly, gender, rights and culture. It is correct to emphasise the linkages among the three. As partners in advocating for human rights, we are all aware that human rights and culture often intersect, particularly where gender is concerned. For instance: how do we understand a woman’s right to plan her family? Or to be free from violence? May we accept or reject these rights, based on our culture?

We at UNFPA believe that human rights are universal; they are neutral of Culture, Gender, Age, Socio-economic status, Nationality, or any other differential. We also recognize, however, that many of the communities in which we work contextualize rights differently.

In rural Amhara region of Ethiopia, a recent study showed, the median age at marriage among girls currently aged 10 to 19 is 17. It is 14 among women aged 20 to 29. And for women over 30, the median age at marriage is 13. One out of six of the women surveyed had given birth by age 15 and two thirds had given birth by age 18.

How does the “cultural difference” of age at marriage affect the lives of men, women, and children in parts of Ethiopia? The result is higher rates of death and injury during childbirth. The result is lower rates of school attendance among prematurely married girls. The result is that thousands of young girls find themselves isolated from their families, friends, and support systems.

What inspired this canvas, however, and what drives us in our work against Early Marriage, is the idea that Culture and Human Rights need not be in opposition. Cultures are dynamic. They must be seen in their wider context: they influence and are influenced by external circumstances and change in response. This “Stop Early Marriage” Canvas is a visual expression of that dynamism.

The images and what they represent come from Ethiopian culture, but their use here is as a vehicle for change. Furthermore, look where dynamism and exchange across cultures has brought us this morning: we are partners from around the world, artists from two continents, and supporters of one objective, stopping early marriage.

It is fitting that thirty artists were needed to create a piece of such magnitude and significance. Changing a harmful traditional practice as entrenched as early marriage will require collective effort. From parents and families of young women, to local community leaders, to policy-makers and legislators, to traditional and religious leaders, to the media, to health service providers and to all sectors of the population – we each have a stake in ending early marriage. We are all implicated, and we are all called to task.

UNFPA supports several projects in Ethiopia that have been greatly successful in protecting girls from early marriage’s negative outcomes. Since 2006, UNFPA has supported a programme to prevent early marriage in Amhara Region called Berhane Hewan, which translates to 'Light for Eve.' Through non-formal education, Berhane Hewan has reached out to hundreds of girls aged 10 to 19 to help them avoid early marriage. The programme provides knowledge, skills and resources to families and girls to help them avoid early marriage. It also provides support to girls who are already married. Over the last two years, not one girl aged between 10 and 14 in the programme site had been married.

In Addis Ababa, we support Biruh Tesfah, a non-formal education programme that assists girls who have fled from early marriages in their rural home communities. And through the Leave No Woman Behind programme, for which the Government of Spain has been a generous and critical partner, we are providing life-skills and education, reproductive health services, and income-generating activities to women and girls, many of whom were married prematurely. In all of these projects, we have seen how essential it is to analyze people’s choices in their local conditions and cultural contexts. With that knowledge, we are able to make better development policies.

We can maintain the traditions that solidify our identities while still honouring the universal right of all people to plan their lives; to plan their families; to receive an education; and to be free from violence, including gender-based violence. I welcome the collaboration today’s event represents. When 19% of Ethiopian girls are married before they are 15, the highest rate of early marriage on the African continent, strong partnerships in the fight to end this harmful practice are critically needed. It is my pleasure to see a new piece of art generated from this exchange – and it gives me hope that by continuing to reach across cultures and join our efforts, we will put an end to early marriage, and create from it a new, positive beauty in our communities.