The Elders speak out on the evil of child marriage

Posted on 6 August 2011


Desmond Tutu and Mabel van Oranje, copyright Jeff Moore, The Elders

Posted on 03 August 2011
Ivana Davidovic
WVoN co-editor

Every year, millions of girls around the world are robbed of their future. Ten million of them to be precise. That is 25,000 every single day.

At an age when their main concern should be squeezing enough playtime between school hours and homework, they are thrust overnight into an adult world of wifely duties with husbands often twice their age.

Some are as young as 16, 14 or even 11. They are expected to have sex and bear children. Being children themselves, they are by no means ready for those roles, either physically or emotionally.

I still vividly remember watching the 2008 Channel 4 documentary Child Brides, Stolen Lives. That’s when I first heard of a horrific medical condition called fistula, basically a hole between the bladder and vagina which occurs after childbirth without adequate medical care.

Hundreds of thousands of women suffer from it because their undeveloped bodies are not ready for the demands of pregnancy and childbirth.

The global tragedy of child marriage has been at the forefront of the work done by the Elders, a group of eminent global leaders brought together by Nelson Mandela in 2007.

Mabel van Oranje, CEO of the Elders, says that “every child marriage is a forced marriage,” adding that it is “outrageous” that women and girls are still facing this type of discrimination in the 21st century.

“It is an issue that not many people talk about, mainly because it is so sensitive. Religion and tradition are often mis-used in order to justify the discrimination against women.

“That is not to say that religion and tradition cannot be forces for good – they are in many parts of the world. But, unfortunately, they are often used to tell women not to go to school or that HIV-positive women should not get treatment for example.”

Because the Elders are a multi-ethnic and multi-racial group, van Oranje believes that no one could accuse them of cultural imperialism or favouring one religion over another.

As none of them hold public office any more, they are “prepared to act boldly and speak difficult truths.”

And some of the damning truths include the fact that more than half of the girls in Bangladesh, Mali, Mozambique and Niger are married before age 18.

In these same countries, more than 75 percent of people live on less than $2 a day. A 15-year-old girl is five times more likely to die in childbirth than a women in her 20s.

Child marriage occurs in Muslim, Hindu and Orthodox communities and is particularly prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

In their work, the Elders have identified three main reasons for the survival of child marriage: gender inequality, poverty and, above all, tradition.

Van Oranje says that “it is an absolute shame that there is not more talk about this, considering the size of the problem and its enormous impact.

“You know how things work, once you have awareness it becomes easier to fund projects which can address the issue. It helps to accelerate change.”

She says that the Elders are working as “incubators” of that change, bringing together organisations from around the world that are working on tackling child marriage.

That’s why they have set-up Girls not Brides: a Global Partnership to End Child Marriage.

At a recent meeting in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, more than 70 activists from 25 countries came together to discuss the work they do, some on a very local and some on a global level – from Bangladesh to the USA.

Van Oranje says that there are two types of interventions that seem to make a difference – education and dialogue.

“First of all, girl-empowerment is crucial and that is done primarily through schooling. The longer you can keep a girl at school the less likely it is that she will have to marry at a young age.

“It is a bit of a chicken and egg problem because of poverty. There have been programmes rolled out where families were encouraged to keep girls at school until the age of 15 and they would get a financial reward or there are schemes where girls get money for clothing and textbooks to actually go to school.

“All of this helps to delay the age of marriage.”

It is also essential to foster understanding and communication. Former child brides are trained to hold these talks or sympathetic religious leaders are recruited to open the channels of communications with a whole village.

As van Oranje points out, “you have people who are trusted in the community who can enter into a dialogue and ask difficult questions.

“Why do so many girls die in childbirth? How come the chances of babies surviving a first year of life are so low? Why do we have so many girls who are HIV infected? How can our village escape the cycle of poverty? ”

These negotiations can be very slow, but the results are encouraging.

“There is an organisation in Western Africa that has helped 4,000 villages to decide to give up the harmful practices of female genital mutilation and of child marriage.

“These people realise that it is not only bad for the girls involved, but it is also against their own interests.

“Because of child marriages, families and communities stay poor. Once a girl is taken out of school she most likely won’t contribute economically to her family or community.”

The Elders point out that child marriage hinders the achievement of six out of eight of the Millenium Development Goals. Globally, improvements in maternal and child health, education and the empowerment of women are painfully slow.

“You have some amazing work done here in the UK about the issue of maternal health under the leadership of Sarah Brown and some great NGOs.

“However, we will never be able to reduce maternal mortality until we tackle the issue of child marriage.”

Despite the enormous task of changing deeply embedded cultural practices, van Oranje is optimistic:

“These issues to be addressed require a critical mass of men and women who decide that the change needs to happen. And some people say that it is really hard to do, that changing social norms is such a difficult process.

“What I tell them is, guess what, look at the case of foot binding in China. It had existed for centuries and, ultimately, it only took one generation to change it. And I am convinced it can be the same for child marriage.”