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“What’s so scary about smart girls?”

The question was posed by a donor representative speaking at the Girl Summit 2014 this week in London. The speaker’s answer to his own question – that smart girls can change the world – matched the mood of the event, which was upbeat, energetic, and ambitious in its goals. Pledging to end child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) “this generation,” the summit had an impressive guest list, with ministers from dozens of countries, UN agency heads, human rights activists including Malala Yousafzai, and even Hollywood actor Freida Pinto.

Speakers at the summit, sponsored by the UK government and UNICEF, were asked to present new commitments their countries were making to the fight against FGM and child marriage. The result was a dizzying parade of speeches where the concept of a “new commitment” was stretched pretty thin. Some countries announced new funding, some talked about how much they were already doing, and some dodged the question by agreeing that these are indeed very important issues. Non-donor countries pledged to get tough, sometimes detailing plans but often in vague terms or emphasizing a need for funding. Dozens of nongovernmental organizations pledged to raise money and implement programs to fight FGM and child marriage.

But the most essential ingredient in the fight against child marriage and FGM is not donor money or new programs. It is political will. Child marriage and FGM are not development issues, they are human rights violations. Many of the crucial steps – passing and enforcing laws, jailing abusers, taking prevention to schools, working with community leaders to change attitudes – don’t cost that much, but require that political leaders and government officials have the will to take action. Donors also need political will of their own – the will to set clear expectations about progress for women and girls in recipient countries and to treat women’s rights as a key issue in bilateral discussions with governments, not as a thing for the development people to worry about.

Governments can demonstrate their political will right now by supporting activists in demanding that the September 2014 session of the Human Rights Council produce a strong resolution that calls on all governments to legislate and enforce laws against child marriage. They can join the nations working to ensure that new sustainable development goals currently being formulated to follow the Millennium Development Goals after 2015 include specific language on child marriage and FGM.

“I am the government – there are more important issues than yours,” a young woman was told in a youth theater performance at the summit. The young leaders perceptive enough to write that line will be watching to see whether countries proclaiming their deep commitment at the Girl Summit take real action or not. Smart girls indeed. 

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