How the EU can make Valentine’s Day happier for the world’s girls

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The right to choose your partner is vital for achieving global gender equality and development: It is the EU’s duty to take the lead in ending forced child marriage, say MEPs Véronique Mathieu and Katarína Neve?alová.

Véronique Mathieu (EPP, France) and Katarína Neve?alová (S&D, Slovakia) are members of the European Parliament’s Working Group on Reproductive Health, HIV/AIDS and Development.

Alongside Christmas and Halloween, there are few days in the European calendar that arouse more attention that Valentine’s Day. Love is something universal that unites us all. Each year this universality is seized by retailers, the hospitality sector and advertisers to fuel sales of luxury goods and services for our loved ones. And it is done so in a ruthlessly commercialised way that generates billions of euros each year.

Most of us take the right to choose our partner for granted. It is a central part of our human rights that allow us a degree of control in shaping the course of our lives, along with our ability to choose our career, our friends and where we live.

Yet sadly many young people around the world are deprived of this right. It is estimated that 25,000 girls are married across the world each day. Girls like Tahani from Yemen, who featured in the recent photo exhibition at the UN entitled “Too Young to Wed”, after being forced to marry a man four times her age when she was only six.

In a decade this will equate to a fate shared by approximately 100 million girls. 100 million of the world’s most vulnerable citizens forced into lives that they have not chosen – too often being made to live lives of domestic servitude, robbed of an education, denied access to family planning, and unable to choose when they will become pregnant. And therefore they are unable to avoid having to face the single greatest threat to the health of any young woman in the developing world: childbirth.

This practice is not confined to individual countries or regions of the world, as it can be found across Africa, Asia, Latin America and even here in Europe. Instead its victims tend to have one common trait – they live in severe poverty. In a cruel irony, many parents see marriage as a way to protect their daughters, as it will provide them with a home, with food, with a future and with a family to (notionally) protect them.

Sadly this new life for the girl will too often lead to her becoming trapped, or even enslaved, driving the vicious cycle of inter-generational poverty. For poorly educated child brides will tend to have large families that are not of their choosing, which will in turn be vulnerable to the same forces and dangers. And so the cycle is set to repeat itself, often little more than a decade later.

On Valentine’s Day this year we call upon the EU to use the huge potential this day holds, both for the sake of girls like Tahani and the global good of humanity. In a report entitled “The State of Girls in EU Development Policy” that we are releasing on 14 February with the European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development, we show how the EU has so far failed to mainstream gender equality issues across its geographic programmes. And we must work together to redress this failure.

The EU institutions must lead from the front and devise a comprehensive EU Action Plan for Girls, in which we will pledge to protect the world’s girls. We must monitor and recognise the problems they face; invest in gender equality; help them to obtain an education; support social security systems that will protect them; prevent trafficking, exploitation and female genital mutilation; uphold their sexual and reproductive health and rights; and put an end to forced child marriage.

It is time for Europe’s leaders to make this day mean something more – something for those who aren’t lucky enough to be giving or receiving roses and chocolates or flocking to restaurants. Let it become a day when we recognise the rights of all those around the world who are not allowed to choose who they spend their lives with, and who they love.

This has potential to become a global campaign if we all get behind it – a campaign that will serve the interests of everyone. For global development needs happy, healthy families.

On Valentine’s Day we should celebrate the Valentine’s Way that every young woman and man should be able to take: the right to choose their partner and their destiny.

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