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What the Girl Summit has achieved, one year on

Written by David Walker

Today marks one year on from the first global Girl Summit, at which governments and civil society organisations signed a charter committing to end female genital mutilation (FGM) and child, early and forced marriage (CEFM) within a generation.

So a year later, what have we achieved? There are promising and not-so-promising indicators.

Progress on last year’s commitments

The UK government, which hosted the summit, has made significant investments in addressing both FGM and CEFM. These focus on promoting understanding about ‘what works’, improving research tools and methodologies for the global community, and fast-tracking social change investments for adolescent girls. Likewise, USAID has expanded its focus on early and forced marriage through its ‘Vision for Action’.

It’s not clear, however, how much others have made good on their commitments. A newly developed Task Team responsible for monitoring progress will develop a summary update. But the broad range of commitments from different actors, including national governments, makes this a difficult task.

Some countries have been reassuringly precise. Ethiopia for instance, has committed a number: a 10% budgetary increase for FGM and CEFM measures. Many others have not been so bold: few of the existing commitments are sufficiently ‘SMART’.

In addition, of the more than 30 low- and middle-income countries severely affected by both early and forced marriage, only 16 appear in the Girl Summit commitments. Further avenues are needed for more countries to publicly commit to this agenda.

In the meantime, we’ll need to see what the Task Team summary – due soon – has to report on how far existing commitments have been achieved.

Ending harmful practices ‘in one generation’

Of course, the impact of the Girl Summit should not just be measured in the nitty gritty of individual commitments. It should also be assessed on the extent to which it helped to raise the profile of these issues and energise action around them.

One clear example is the recent African Union statement launching a campaign to ‘end child marriage in Africa’. It outlines 10 broad areas to address the issue of girls being married too young or against their will. Some of these strategies are both very concrete (developing an indicator for African Union goals) and refreshing (looking at the role of men, and fathers in particular).

On the other hand, while the ‘ending it in one generation’ approach is a powerful narrative to rally around, there is a danger that it will prove counterproductive.

For a start, it’s not a realistic goal. The statistics show that the likelihood of a girl experiencing FGM has decreased one third in 30 years, or just over one generation. The numbers of CEFM are comparable. But this progress is cancelled out when you factor in population growth – at current rates, we will draw about even in the number of girls affected by FGM (3.6 million in 2015 to 4.1 million in 2050). The story is similar for early and forced marriage: even if progress accelerates, just under 1 in 5 girls will be affected by child marriage in 2040, as opposed to 1 in 4 girls currently.

But does this really matter? Don’t optimism and clear goals galvanise energy into action?

I would caution that they do more to enhance the myth that FGM and CEFM are relatively isolated issues that can be tackled head on.

In fact, they aren’t, and there are no quick wins. Our own research shows that teenage pregnancy and informal marriages may be more influential in increasing girls’ vulnerability than marriage itself, that early marriage is fixed or increasing in some contexts, and that unmarried girls can be just as vulnerable as married girls in some situations. We need a broader focus on the empowerment of adolescent girls.

A year on from this landmark summit, the next steps are clear.

First, we must resist the temptation to talk about ending FGM and CEFM ‘within one generation’, and instead frame the agenda in terms of broader gender empowerment and progress toward equality.

The second task, which is currently not on the agenda at all, is to not only bolster existing commitments in the Girl Summit proclamation, but to provide a forum to enable and celebrate new commitments.