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Afghanistan: Girls at increasing risk of child marriage

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Engaged at age 7 and married at 14, a former Afghan child bride finally received treatment from the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) for depression and other chronic illnesses. © UNFPA Afghanistan

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has received credible reports of families in Afghanistan offering daughters as young as 20 days old for future marriage in return for a dowry.

In a statement released on Friday, the agency’s Executive Director, Henrietta Fore, said that she was “deeply concerned” over reports that child marriage is on the rise.  

Even before the latest political instability, UNICEF’s partners registered 183 child marriages and 10 cases of selling of children in Herat and Baghdis provinces between the ages of six months and 17 years from 2018 to 2019.  

The agency estimates that 28 per cent of Afghan women between the ages 15 and 49 were married before they reached their 18th birthday. 

A growing crisis 

The COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing food crisis and the onset of winter have further exacerbated the situation for families. 

In 2020, almost half of Afghanistan’s population was so poor that they lacked basic necessities, such as nutrition or clean water. 

And the extremely dire economic situation is pushing more families deeper into poverty and forcing them to make desperate choices, such as putting children to work and marrying girls off at a young age. 

“As most teenage girls are still not allowed to go back to school, the risk of child marriage is now even higher”, Ms. Fore said. “Education is often the best protection against negative coping mechanisms such as child marriage and child labour”.-* 

Lifetime of suffering 

UNICEF is working with partners to raise the awareness of communities on the risks girls face when marrying early, such as a lifetime of suffering. 

Girls who marry before they turn 18 are less likely to remain in school and more likely to experience domestic violence, discrimination, abuse and poor mental health. They are also more vulnerable to complications in pregnancy and childbirth. 

The agency has started a cash assistance programme to help offset the risk of hunger, child labour and child marriage among the most vulnerable families. The plan is to scale up this and other social services programmes in the months to come. 

UNICEF will also work with religious leaders to ensure that they are not involved in the “Nekah”, or marriage contract, for young girls. 

“But this is not enough”, said Ms. Fore, calling on central, provincial and local authorities to support and safeguard the most vulnerable families and girls. 

She also urged the de facto authorities to prioritize the reopening of all secondary schools for girls and allow all-female teachers to resume their jobs without any further delays. 

“The future of an entire generation is at stake”, she concluded.  

‘Dramatic situation’ 

In parallel coverage, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) closed its 18th session. 

In her concluding remarks, Gladys Acosta Vargas, the Committee Chairperson, said all Members were “deeply concerned about the dramatic situation” of women and girls in Afghanistan. 

She argued that it was “crucial” that the Committee decided to request an exceptional report on their situation, at an opportune time. 

The Committee also asked for the creation of an informal task force to consider the impact of the evolving political, economic and social situation on the rights of women and girls. 

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Nations must ‘act together, urgently and with solidarity’ to end crisis of food insecurity

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A mother feeds her child at home in Tshombe District, Madagascar, where nearly 55 per cent of the population is facing severe food insecurity. UNOCHA/Viviane Rakotoarivony

Hunger levels around the world are at “a new high”, the UN chief said on Wednesday, in a call to action to fight the current surge in global food insecurity.

During a ministerial meeting on global hunger taking pace at UN Headquarters in New York, Secretary-General António Guterres said the number of severely food insecure people had doubled in just two years – from 135 million pre-pandemic to 276 million today, with more than half a million experiencing famine conditions – an increase of more than 500 per cent since 2016.

“These frightening figures are inextricably linked with conflict, as both cause, and effect,” he said. “If we do not feed people, we feed conflict”.

Hunger triggers

The climate emergency is another driver of global hunger he added, pointing out that 1.7 billion people have been affected by extreme weather and climate-related disasters over the past decade.

Moreover, the COVID-induced economic shock has compounded food insecurity by reducing incomes and disrupting supply chains, leading to an uneven economic recovery. Access to financial markets has been restricted, with some developing States now on the brink of debt default.

“Now the war in Ukraine is amplifying and accelerating all these factors: climate change, COVID-19, and inequality,” Mr. Guterres said.

Ukraine war’s repercussions

Between them, Ukraine and Russia produce almost a third of the world’s wheat and barley and half of its sunflower oil. Russia and Belarus are the world’s number two and three producers of potash, a key ingredient of fertilizer.

The war threatens to tip “tens of millions of people over the edge into food insecurity, followed by malnutrition, mass hunger and famine, in a crisis that could last for years,” warned the UN chief.

“In the past year, global food prices have risen by nearly one-third, fertilizer by more than half, and oil prices by almost two-thirds”.

Devastating societies

Meanwhile, most developing countries lack the fiscal space to cushion the blow of these huge increases with many unable to borrow because markets are closed to them.

“If high fertilizer prices continue, today’s crisis in grain and cooking oil could affect many other foods including rice, impacting billions of people in Asia and the Americas,” he detailed.

Additionally, children are threatened by a lifetime of stunting; millions of women and children will become malnourished; girls will be pulled from school and forced to work or get married; and families will embark on dangerous journeys across continents, just to survive.

High rates of hunger have a devastating impact on individuals, families, and societies,” spelled out the UN chief.

‘Five urgent steps’

However, if we act together, there is enough food for everyone, he said adding that “ending hunger is within our reach”.

The Secretary-General then outlined five urgent steps to solve the short-term crisis and prevent long-term damage, beginning with reducing market pressure by increasing food supplies – with no restrictions on exports and surpluses available to those most in need.

“But let’s be clear: there is no effective solution to the food crisis without reintegrating Ukraine’s food production, as well as the food and fertilizer produced by Russia and Belarus, into world markets, despite the war”.

Secondly, social protection systems must cover all in need with food, cash; and water, sanitation, nutrition, and livelihood support must be provided.

Fourth, governments must bolster agricultural production and invest in resilient food systems that protect smallholder food producers.

And finally, humanitarian operations must be fully funded to prevent famine and reduce hunger.

Act in solidarity

In closing, the UN chief said that the Global Crisis Response Group on food, energy and finance is tracking the impact of the crisis on vulnerable people, identifying and pushing for solutions.

“The food crisis has no respect for borders, and no country can overcome it alone,” he said.

“Our only chance of lifting millions of people out of hunger is to act together, urgently and with solidarity”.  

‘Goodwill’ needed

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken chaired the meeting in which foreign ministers from approximately 30 regionally diverse countries discussed steps to address global food security, nutrition, and resilience.

Describing the current situation as the “greatest global food insecurity crisis of our time,” Mr. Blinken attributed the emergency to conflict, drought and natural disasters – made worse by Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Although hopeful, he said that “there is still a way to go” and that “the complex security, economic and financial implications require goodwill on all sides”.

To address the global crisis, US Secretary announced $215 million in humanitarian aid.

Urgent to open ports

World Food Programme (WFP) chief David Beasley drew attention to a world “too fragile” from years of conflict, pandemic and climate threats.

He also noted that current funding deficits could impede food access by as many as four million people.

Additionally, the top WFP official pointed out that a “failure to open the ports” in and beyond Ukraine will force people to the brink of starvation.

Although the “silos are full,” blockades and other impediments are rendering them inaccessible, Mr. Beasley said, urging governments to “step up” now”.

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‘We cannot rest’ until child labour is eliminated

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A woman watches children working at a stone quarry, Zambia. (file) IRIN/M. Deghati

Countries taking part in the 5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labour this week in South Africa, are being urged to do more to end child labour by 2025.

The strong call for urgent action at the conference taking place in Durban, aims to combat an uptick in the numbers of children being forced into work.

Latest figures indicate that 160 million children  – almost one in ten worldwide – are still being affected. Furthermore, numbers are on the rise, with the pandemic threating to reverse years of progress, as child labour becomes a bigger scourge in particular among the vulnerable five to 11-year-old age group.

Make a difference

Speaking at the start of a week of hybrid format discussions, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa called on delegates to commit to taking “far-reaching actions” to make a difference in the lives of children.

“We are here because we share a common conviction that child labour in all its facets is an enemy. Child labour is an enemy of our children’s development and an enemy of progress.

“No civilization, no country and no economy can consider itself to be at the forefront of progress if its success and riches have been built on the backs of children.”

Mr. Ramaphosa’s call was echoed by Guy Ryder, Director-General of the International Labour Organization (ILO), who underlined that “child labour is a violation of a basic human right, and our goal must be that every child, everywhere is free from it. We cannot rest until that happens.”

According to the ILO, global progress against child labour has stalled for the first time in 2020, after two decades of moving in the right direction. In addition, the COVID-19 crisis is likely to have pushed millions more children into the workforce.

First in Africa

This is the first time the Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labour is being held in Africa, a region where child labour numbers are highest, and progress has been slowest, ILO notes.

According to recent data, most child labour on the continent – some 70 per cent – is in the agricultural sector, often in settings where children are working alongside other family members.

The conference builds on four previous Global Conferences, held in Buenos Aires (2017), Brasilia (2013), The Hague (2010), and Oslo (1997), which raised awareness of the issue, assessed progress, mobilized resources, and established a strategic direction for the global movement against child labour.

Call for action

With the 2025 UN Sustainable Development Goals  deadline for the elimination of child labour looming, many speakers outlined the urgent need to recover the progress that had been made in many regions, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Conference is expected to conclude with a formal Call to Action that will outline concrete commitments to scale up action to eliminate child labour.

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Israel: UN rights chief calls for end to ‘culture of impunity’

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The funeral of Shirin Abu Akleh in Jerusalem. Photo: Maisa Abu Ghazaleh

Investigations must be held into the actions of the Israeli security forces, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said on Saturday, calling for accountability and an end to impunity.

Her appeal comes in the wake of the killing of Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh, who was fatally shot on Wednesday while covering an Israeli raid in Jenin, West Bank.

The veteran Palestinian-American journalist was buried in East Jerusalem on Friday and huge crowds turned out for her funeral.

‘Shocking’ use of force

The High Commissioner issued a statement saying she was following “with deep distress” the events in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

“Footage of Israeli police attacking mourners at the funeral procession of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in East Jerusalem on Friday 13 May was shocking. Reports indicate that at least 33 people were injured,” she said.

Ms. Bachelet said the Israeli use of force, which was being filmed and broadcast live,  appeared to be unnecessary and must be promptly and transparently investigated.

“There must be accountability for the terrible killing not just of Shireen Abu Akleh but for all the killings and serious injuries in the occupied Palestinian territory,” she said.

Call for investigations

The UN rights chief reported that 48 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces so far this year.

The latest death occurred on Saturday when a young man called Walid al-Sharif, succumbed to injuries sustained during clashes last month at the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem.

“As I have called for many times before, there must be appropriate investigations into the actions of Israeli security forces,” said Ms. Bachelet. 

“Anyone found responsible should be held to account with penal and disciplinary sanctions commensurate to the gravity of the violation. This culture of impunity must end now.”

Security Council condemnation

The killing of Ms. Abu Akleh has sent shockwaves across the globe, and UN officials have been among those calling for an investigation.

The journalist was shot even though she wore a vest that identified her as a member of the press corps. Her producer also was wounded.

The UN Security Council issued a statement on Friday strongly condemning her killing, reiterating that journalists should be protected as civilians.

The Council also called for an immediate, thorough, transparent, and fair and impartial investigation into her killing, and stressed the need to ensure accountability.  

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