I’m looking at a portrait of a cherub-faced 11-year-old girl sitting cross-legged, eyes askance, glancing at the wizened 40-year-old man sitting beside her at her home in a rural village in Afghanistan. She is about to become his bride. Next to the photograph, a quote from the girl, who was asked how she felt that day: “I do not know this man. What am I supposed to feel?”
The photograph is on a fact sheet for the newly launched Girls Not Brides partnership and was handed out at the UN Foundation & Mashable Social Good Summit last week by The Elders — a remarkable group of global leaders who are taking on some of the world’s most pressing problems.
The Elders count Archbishop Desmond Tutu (their chair), and Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and High Commissioner for Human Rights at the UN among their very prestigious numbers. (Former South African President Nelson Mandela and Burmese pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi are honorary Elders, other members include former US President Jimmy Carter, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, and former Prime Minister of Norway and director general of the World Health Organization Dr. Gro Brundtland).
Here’s the latest problem the Elders are poised to tackle: every year an estimated 10 million girls worldwide are forced to marry before their 18th birthdays — that’s more than 25,000 girls a day whose lives are robbed of an education and a future. The health, well-being and education of girls and women is critical, from both a humanitarian and a development standpoint. The Girls Not Brides initiative brings together more than 50 organizations committed to ending child marriage and bent on changing cultural norms.
“Women are the key in any community,” Tutu affirms in a powerful video about the campaign. “People don’t seem to talk much of child brides. It’s seen as a family issue or a cultural issue, not a human rights issue,” he continues. But of course, it is a human rights issue. From health care to poverty to education, if you take care of women and girls, you take care of society. “Every single issue you could think of the human rights sort and of the millennium goals is affected by child marriage. And we have this opportunity for this global partnership,” Robinson explained at the Social Good Summit.
The statistics are startling. Girls under the age of 15 are 5 times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s. 64 percent of illiterate adults are women. Girls who marry before they turn 18 are more likely to report being beaten by their husbands and forced to have sex than girls who marry later.
“From the very beginning we were clear that we’d like as Elders to be very supportive of women and girls and address some of the problems. And we recognize that one of the issues that causes women and girls – girls in particular — to feel second class, is in fact a misuse of religion and tradition, and traditional practices,” Robinson said.
On a recent trip with the Elders to the Amhara region of Ethiopia — where 49% of girls are married before they turn 18, and the average age girls marry is 12 — Robinson spoke to a 16-year-old bride. “I asked her now that you’re married is there any chance of you going back to school? And she said ‘no.’ So at the age of 16 she felt ‘that’s the end for me,’” Robinson said. “And there are understandable reasons – there’s poverty – in some cultures there’s a fear that young teenage girls will have a relationship outside of marriage and shame the family, so better to marry her quickly. So there are reasons behind the traditional practice but it’s a harmful traditional practice – it’s not justifiable by calling it culture.”
The Elders bring much gravitas in their appeal to religious leaders and tribal chiefs to support girls and women, to embrace the concepts of equality and empowerment — in a word, to shift tradition.
“Archbishop Tutu spoke so passionately about it. He actually said something — and I have never heard him say this about something before — that he feels as strongly about it as the commitment he had to address apartheid,” Robinson recalled.
They believe they can turn things around in one generation.
“I don’t think 10 years ago we could have really embarked on a global change affecting 10 million girls in so many different parts of the world,” Robinson pondered. “The reason we say ‘in a generation’ is we believe that if we can keep the girls in school, change the community attitude, the traditional chief, the village itself, the rural area, the slum, the communities; if girls get that chance to stay in school – especially secondary school – and then are strong enough to have their own choices, a good sense of themselves, their own potential, they will not allow their daughters to be married off. They’ll influence their community. So that’s the generation part. What we have now is the potential to mobilize.”
Take a look at The Elders video about the Girls Not Brides campaign:
Photo credit: United Nations Foundation