Letting Girls Be Girls—A Global Campaign
This week in Davos, Switzerland, the World Economic Forum will highlight a drive by The Elders to end the practice of child marriage.
Every year, all over the world, 10 million girls are forcibly married before the age of 18, many as young as 12 years old. That is more than 25,000 girls a day. “I knew that there was an institution of child marriage,” said Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. “But I was devastated to discover how widely it occurs, and on such a huge scale.” Tutu is a member of an organization called The Elders, which has announced an ambitious goal to stop this abuse of girls “in one generation.”
The child brides often suffer sexual abuse and domestic violence in its many forms and are frequently forced to become mothers at an age that puts them at high risk of maternal injury and death. Because the harmful practice receives relatively little attention as it continues year after year, The Elders, independent global leaders brought together by Nelson Mandela in 2007, launched the Global Partnership to End Child Marriage with a campaign called Girls Not Brides.
Archbishop Tutu says that until The Elders began working on child marriage, “it had not occurred to me how little the girl child is even thought about in broader efforts to lift people out of poverty and defend basic human rights principles.” In a trip to the Amhara region of Ethiopia last year, meeting girls and women who had been married as young as eight, he witnessed the repercussions firsthand. “It’s one thing to hear experts talking about child marriage, but it’s quite another to meet these girls and hear their stories,” he says. “You realize this affects every aspect of their lives: they leave school before they can complete their education; their young bodies bear children before they are physically ready to do so; they’re unable to negotiate safe sexual practices with their older husbands. They really are some of the most vulnerable and voiceless people on earth.”
Mary Robinson, the first woman president of Ireland and another member of The Elders, says that it is hard “to exaggerate the scale of the problem.” The 100 million girls who will marry before reaching 18 in the next decade is, she says a “staggering level of lost potential.” In places like India, home to one third of the world’s child brides, this is not just a human rights issue, but a development issue as well. Says Robinson, “The benefits of delaying marriage for girls are felt community-wide. Girls stay in school and learn skills that will better equip them to work and contribute economically to their families and community.” Their children will benefit too. “Babies born to mothers under 18 are 60 percent more likely to be poor,” she says, “and are at much higher risk of dying in their first year of life than those born to older mothers.”
Tutu notes the disturbing reasons why parents arrange these marriages. “I am convinced that there is no mother or father on this earth who doesn’t want the best for their child,” he says. “Indeed, many parents marry off their daughters young because they feel it is in her best interest, often to ensure her safety in areas where girls are at high risk of physical or sexual assault.” Poverty is an important perpetuating factor. Tutu says, “Who am I to criticize the decisions of parents with large families to support who decide to marry their daughters young because they simply can’t afford to feed her, or because of the bride price that she can fetch?” He adds that in many communities where child marriage is practiced, “sadly girls are not valued as much as boys—they are seen as a burden. The challenge will be to change parents’ attitudes and emphasize that girls who avoid early marriage and stay in school will likely be able to make a greater contribution to their family and their community in the long term.”
Creating awareness of these social and economic interactions is one of the goals of the Girls Not Brides campaign, which harnesses the collective efforts and wisdom of 80 organizations from around the world to tackle child marriage at grassroots, national and global levels. Says Tutu, “Simply put, we do not have to accept that child marriage happens because it is just ‘how things have always been.’ What we want is for world leaders to make sure this change happens on a global scale.” Tutu is appearing this week at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos to promote programs with proven results. “It’s the kind of work that’s being done already by people at a local level,” he says. “Now just imagine the scale of change possible if our leaders followed their brave lead.” On a panel with Michelle Bachelet, executive director of UN Women, and Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook, he will also address the issue Friday, January 27, during a WEF plenary session on “Women as the Way Forward”—in a panel moderated by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. Next month four members of The Elders, including Tutu and Robinson, will visit India to learn about the causes of child marriage there, and to encourage local efforts to end the practice.
Human Rights Watch, a member of Girls Not Brides, recently issued a report calling on the government of Yemen to introduce a minimum age of marriage in a country where more than half of girls are married before they turn 18. That’s a first step, says Mary Robinson, but “legislation alone will not end entrenched traditional practices.” Among the most effective efforts, she cites programs that “encourage dialogue among parents, religious leaders, village councils, teachers—everyone. Over time these people often come to a collective decision to stop marrying their daughters off very young. We’ve been impressed by the fact that these programs are changing the attitudes of men, some of whom have become the most active advocates for change.”
Tutu also credits “brave religious and traditional leaders” who “actively encourage their communities to end the practice.” They are still in the minority, however, in countries where child marriage is common. “We want to encourage men and boys to stand up for their daughters’ and sisters’ rights,” says Tutu. “Community leaders and religious leaders, fathers and brothers can all join the effort to end child marriage.”
Robinson says that above all, “we need to empower girls.” They need access to quality education, since “school attendance has been found to help shift attitudes,” she says. “We also need to provide support networks and create safe spaces where girls can gather and meet, reducing their sense of isolation and vulnerability.”
Ultimately, she says, “change will be made at local, national and international levels.” Through a global partnership informed by resources and information that Girls Not Brides members have collected, they will “bring home the fact that for 10 million girls a year their wedding day is a day of loss.”
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