HYDERABAD: Making one of Pakistan’s most impoverished districts the first stop of her first official visit to the country, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka on Wednesday called upon the entire community to end child marriages and voice their commitment to change the lives of girls and young women for the better future. “Becoming a ‘zero child-marriage’ village will require everyone’s efforts. Girls and young women must have power to make their own decisions. They need to know that they are not anyone’s property. They have both rights and a voice to say no,” Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka said in her dialogue with over 300 residents, notables of the area, government officials, civil society representatives and members of the local press.They gathered at the Shaheed Benazir Bhutto Cultural Complex in the district capital, Mithi, at an event to mark the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence campaign. “When the whole nation commits to tackling deep-rooted traditions like child marriage head-on, millions of girls stand to benefit. This is also a task for men, who can accelerate progress by saying simply ‘I will not marry a child’,” the Executive Director said.Calling on religious and traditional leaders to use their position of authority to take a stance against violence and protect the rights of girls, Malmbo-Ngcuka received pledges from religious clerics, registrars and local politicians to make Thar as a ‘zero child marriage’ village and set an example for others to follow. It is estimated that there are 650 million women and girls in the world today who were married before age 18. During the past decade, the global rate of child marriage has declined from one in four young women aged 20-24 to almost one in five.Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka encouraged families and the community to become more vigilant to prevent and report cases of under-aged marriage. She also urged the religious leaders who solemnize marriages to confirm whether the bride and groom are of legal age, stressing the importance of birth certificates and national identity cards for age verification. “The decision to marry should be a freely made, informed decision that is taken without fear, coercion, or undue pressure,” said the Executive Director. “By speaking out against child marriage, religious and traditional leaders can help to change the social and cultural norms that perpetuate the practice even when there are laws in place to prevent it.”Social and gender inequality, a desire to control women’s sexuality and protect family honour, economic hardship and lack of awareness of the harmful impact of child marriage are common driving factors.The Minister for Women Development for the province of Sindh, Syeda Shehla Raza, said that early child marriage is among the contributing factors to both relatively high rates of maternal and child mortality in Tharparkar, which needs urgent attention through multi-pronged interventions. She added that the government of Sindh is doing everything possible to ensure the implementation of laws related to women’s health and the social, political and economic empowerment of women.However, Minister Raza said more public awareness and oversight by relevant authorities are needed to ensure adherence to the law. She thanked Ms Mlambo-Ngcuka for her visit in Tharparkar, saying that she hopes it will amplify the collective efforts to fight early child marriage, not only in Sindh but across the nation.Child marriage is a fundamental human rights violation that constitutes a grave threat to young girls’ lives, health and future prospects. The right to ‘free and full’ consent to a marriage is recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with the recognition that consent cannot be ‘free and full’ when one of the parties involved is not sufficiently mature to make an informed decision about a life partner.“This (child marriage) issue needs a continuous and focused effort, and we are thankful to UN for supporting the Sindh commission on the status of women in conducting the training of marriage registrars all over Sindh which will involve local government officers, commissioners and union councils,” said Nuzhat Shirin, Chair of the Sindh commission on the status of women.