Calling for an end to the practice of early enforced marriages
In October last year, Plan successfully campaigned at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth for the leaders of the association's 54 nations to commit to ending early and enforced marriage of teenage girls.
Ian Wishart, chief executive of Plan International Australia, said the resolution in the CHOGM communiqué to end the practice would dramatically change the lives of the millions of girls throughout the Commonwealth who find themselves married against their will.
"It is a fantastic commitment," he said. "When enacted, it will rescue millions of girls from a life of poverty and abuse. It sends a strong signal to government authorities and communities across the Commonwealth that the early marriage of girls - often against their will and best interests - is no longer a practice to be tolerated."
Mr Wishart said it was particularly pleasing that leaders had outlined real actions for ending the practice of early and forced marriage, including work to strengthen laws and enforce existing laws aimed at ending early and forced marriages, along with regular reporting about progress on the issue.
"One in seven girls in the world's poorest nations are married before they turn 15. When they are married, they invariably have to leave school, robbing them of the opportunity of a better life," said Mr Wishart.
"The resolution by Commonwealth leaders will have a hugely positive impact on the life opportunities of literally millions of girls around the world who will otherwise be trapped in a cycle of poverty, ill-health, illiteracy and abuse.
"Our ongoing challenge is to make sure the Commonwealth's leaders follow through on the commitments they have made to the girls of their nations and ensure early and forced marriage is ended."
Many influential leaders joined Plan in calling for an end to the practice of forced, early marriages, including Her Excellency Ms Quentin Bryce AC CVO, Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia, Dr Surujrattan Rambachan, Foreign Minister of Trinidad and Tobago and Malcolm Fraser, Former Prime Minister of Australia. The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, had also been pushing at CHOGM for forced marriage to be a human rights issue on which Commonwealth leaders would agree action.
As part of the lobbying, Plan and the Royal Commonwealth Society released a report called: Empowering Girls: what the Commonwealth can do to end early and forced marriage. It highlights that early and forced marriage is one of the greatest ongoing barriers to girls' education, maternal health and economic empowerment.
In March 2011, Plan and the Royal Commonwealth Society released a report called: Because You're a Girl: Growing up in the Commonwealth. The report highlights the many barriers still faced by girls and women across the Commonwealth to participating fully in social, political and economic life. Find out more about this report.
Plan UK recently released an extensive report on early and forced marriage called Breaking Vows: Early and Forced Marriage and Girls' Education.
The United Nations Commission on the status of women
In March this year, Plan played a key role in raising the issue of early and forced marriage at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York.
The CSW is an annual meeting that brings member states, UN agencies and NGOs from all over the world to New York to discuss issues related to the rights, advancement and empowerment of women.
It was an ideal opportunity for Plan to raise awareness about the realities faced by millions of girls around the world.
Plan hosted an expert panel discussion about the prevalence of early and forced marriage in rural settings, and its impact on girls' education and development.
Speakers included Marta Santos Pais, Special Representative to the UN Secretary-General on Violence against children; the Hon Lynne Featherstone, UK Minister for Equalities; Ms Penny Williams, Australia's Ambassador for Women and Girls; the Special Adviser to the Pakistan Prime Minister and two of Plan International's girls delegation from Sierra Leone and Pakistan.
Ms Williams emphasised Australia's commitment to upholding girls' rights by strengthening Australia's laws and supporting international efforts to protect girls from early and forced marriage.
Achieving self determination
Geeta* comes from a poor village in Nepal. Her family's dire economic situation led to her being forced into a kamalari contract, an age-old Nepalese tradition that forces young girls into hard labour in households away from their family.
Geeta was only 12, and for five years worked from sunrise to late in the evening for an annual income of 700 Nepali rupees (about $US10).
Through Plan's kamalari abolition program, Geeta is not only free from the contract that bound her, but was able to start her own business - a roadside cafe that employs her whole family.
An initial investment by Plan to pay the first three months' rent and provide simple chairs and tables has returned a great result for Geeta and her family. It is a self-sustaining business with earnings so far of 32,000 rupees - roughly 46 times her annual wage when she worked as a kamalari.
Geeta's success has inspired other kamalari girls to join the program.
You can help girls like Geeta achieve the most in life. Act now!
*Geeta's name has been changed
Cooking up change in Cambodia
Like so many girls living in rural poverty in Cambodia, Wattana was forced to leave school in grade 6. She had to help support the nine people in her family, including her widowed mother, so she tried to eke out a living by cutting wood for a pittance in a nearby forest. Because Wattana was a girl, she was the poorest of the poor.
But Wattana knew she was capable of so much more. When a Plan volunteer in her village told Wattana that a Plan partner in a large town in the region offered potentially life-changing training in the restaurant and tourism trade, the young teenager became very excited.
The course provided out of school young people like her, with hands-on training in restaurant and housekeeping services, and included office and English skills to help them get jobs in the Sala Bai tourist industry. It sounded exactly like what Wattana wanted. She raced home to tell her mother about what she saw as an incredible opportunity.
Unfortunately, Wattana's mother didn't see it the same way. The training involved an intensive 12 - month course away from home, and she thought this was inappropriate, given that Wattana is a girl. She thought her daughter should stay in the village like the other kids, cutting wood and getting married and raising children.
But Wattana was not about to have her hopes dashed. She gathered more information about the course and continued trying to persuade her mother. In the face of her daughter's fierce determination, Wattana's mother eventually gave her permission to sit the entrance examination. And Wattana passed! Armed with a scholarship to study her favourite subject - cooking - Wattana left the village and went away by herself to Sala Bai to study and better her life.
Today, aged seventeen, Wattana has achieved her dream of working in a restaurant. She has become a different person now that she holds a job and her whole family shares in her success.
Wattana sends money home that allows her younger siblings to attend school more easily, including a brother who has continued to Junior High School, all thanks to Wattana. She is proving that investing in girls is the key to reducing poverty.
Wattana's mother is immensely proud of her daughter, saying the family no longer has to struggle to make ends meet. "I am very happy that Wattana has a job. It is unbelievable that my family condition can change like this."
17-year old Wattana smiles a little shyly and says, "Yes, I am very proud of myself that I was given opportunity to learn cooking skills and with it I can earn money and support my family back in the village."
Wattana is the one. She is changing the world for herself and for those around her. Because she is a girl.
We work to empower children and communities to overcome poverty. We are dedicated to child rights and actively involve children, their families and communities in all of our work. We have no religious or political agenda and work at the grass roots to transform the world for children.Visit the Plan in Australia site