28/10/2011 07:21 BST | Updated 28/12/2011 05:12 GMT

A Test of Relevance - Why the Commonwealth Must end Early and Forced Marriage

The Commonwealth stands on the brink of change. Put simply, the 54 leaders of the Commonwealth gathering in Perth, Australia, this weekend will decide the association's fate, at least for the next decade.

Leaders can agree to adopt the reform agenda as set out in the final report of the Eminent Persons Group or broker compromises that side-step from this much needed change. The former, we are assured by members of the Eminent Persons Group, would support the Commonwealth to find its place in the world by putting the protection and promotion of human rights at the core of its work. The latter, much to the disappointment of the many civil society organisations and indeed many of the government delegations attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, would gravely set back any chance of making the Commonwealth fit for our contemporary world any time soon.

However, at a Plan and Royal Commonwealth Society event, 'Silence is not an option': Strengthening the role of the Commonwealth in protecting human rights, hosted on the fringe of the negotiations, a vision of a credible and robust Commonwealth could be spotted. A Commonwealth that would practice its shared values not simply recite them.

On the issue of the early and forced marriage of girls the speakers, including Australian member of the Eminent Persons Group Michael Kirby, Rt Hon Baroness Ashton of the EU, and the Foreign Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, were all unanimous about the importance of ending forced marriage, realising gender equality and working to ensure girls all over the world have access to quality education as a means to ending poverty.

Dr Surujrattan Rambachan, Foreign Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, opened the evening with a story of his mother who was married at the age of 13 and had to give up her education. He said the experience made her passionate about ensuring her own children - sons and daughters - made the most of their education.

Dr Rambachan stressed that "we cannot turn a blind eye to the needs and vulnerabilities of our women and girls. As a collective body of the Commonwealth, we must tackle this pressing issue head on. Silence is not an option".

Michael Kirby affirmed that the Eminent Persons Group report has references to early and forced marriage, and "that it is a very strong view of the EPG" that girls should not be forced into marriage.

The Rt Hon Baroness Ashton, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs, who took the UK's forced marriage bill through the House of Lords, also emphasised action on early and forced marriage as one of many human rights issues that the global community needs to maintain focus on. Ashton, speaking about the EU and perhaps providing subtle advice to the Commonwealth, said: "Human rights are a silver thread throughout all our work. It is not an add-on." She said that early and forced marriage was a tragedy for girls and their families. "It's time to stop it," she said. She emphasised that achieving this goal requires strengthening existing laws as well as working with families and communities to help them to understand why children should not be married early.

Underscoring the importance of efforts to improve the lives of the Commonwealth's girls' The Queen reminded the assembled prime ministers and presidents at the opening ceremony that the Commonwealth theme this year is Women as Agents of Change. The Queen, who is head of the Commonwealth, added of the theme, "It reminds us of the potential in our societies that is yet to be fully unlocked, and it encourages us to find ways to allow all girls and women to play their full part".

Whether the Commonwealth takes real and tangible action on human rights issues is the test that awaits leaders in Perth. There are many human rights issues like early and forced marriage that affect the lives of the Commonwealth's two billion citizens. As Plan and The Royal Commonwealth Society have set out in Empowering Girls: what the Commonwealth can do to end early and forced marriage - silence needs to give way to action.

When the leaders of the Commonwealth speak with a collective voice on some of the most challenging issues affecting today's world, they do so with great moral authority. In recent years, this power to influence has been under-utilised by an overly-cautious Commonwealth. Leaders can this weekend demonstrate the global moral leadership that once did - and can - define the Commonwealth's unique identity on a crowded international stage.

This weekend Commonwealth leaders must choose reform and that must mean the realisation of rights.