NEW YORK (TrustLaw) – Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who is spearheading a global campaign against child marriage, says the horrors of the practice were brought home to him when his 14-year-old granddaughter visited him recently.
Tutu, who had seen the terrible cost of child marriage on a trip to Ethiopia last spring, says he looked at his granddaughter in her school uniform and thought: “This child, if she were somewhere else, she could be a child bride. And that hits you between the eyes.”
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate is chair of The Elders, a group of global leaders dedicated to addressing humanitarian issues which is now turning its attentions to child marriage.
Tutu was in New York last month to launch Girls Not Brides, a global partnership campaign aimed at combating the scourge which threatens the childhoods of millions of girls around the world, primarily in Asia and Africa.
According to The Elders, “Every year an estimated 10 million girls worldwide are married before they turn 18, usually with no say in when or whom they marry. Child marriage almost always cuts girls’ education short, trapping them and their children in poverty. It often leads to early pregnancy and childbirth, putting girls’ lives and health at risk.”
“Say a girl of 13 or 14, what skill has she got? What hope does she have of making a significant economic and financial contribution to the community?” Tutu told TrustLaw.
He added that until child marriage is eradicated, success in preventing or ameliorating many of the serious health and social issues it spawns is limited.
“This is the entry point that makes sense,” he said, referring to efforts to improve the health, well-being and social empowerment of women and girls. “We are playing games if we do not, in fact, tackle this issue.”
Tutu said the practice is insidious and widespread, but until recently even people like himself knew little about it.
“I was quite flabbergasted to discover that, in fact, the highest incidence is in one African country and that basically south Saharan Africa is responsible for about 46 or so percent—Niger is 75 percent.”
Growing up in South Africa, the son of a school headmaster, Tutu said child marriage was never an issue for his two sisters nor was he aware of the extent of the practice on the continent. “I didn’t know that in Africa you had what I thought was mainly an Indian phenomenon,” he said, referring to the fact that the largest percentages of child marriage are found in Asia, particularly in India.
He said ending child marriage is the key to solving myriad related problems including maternal health, maternal and infant mortality, access to education, violence against women and gender equality.
“One of the things we are underscoring is that (unless we deal with child marriage) we are unlikely to achieve six of the eight MDGs (Millennium Development Goals) - poverty, hunger, education, we can forget about universal primary education. We can forget about improving maternal health. We can forget about improving infant mortality. It’s actually quite shattering.”
Child marriage is so deeply entrenched for diverse economic, cultural and social reasons in so many different societies it would seem an extremely difficult problem to eradicate. But Tutu sees no reason why it cannot be reversed in the same way other firmly held traditions and attitudes have been changed in recent years.
“I myself would say that we’ve had a number of social systems which we thought were forever but they’ve changed,” he said. “You, in the U.S. had Jim Crow,” he said, referring to segregation in America. “Apartheid (in South Africa) they said was sanctioned by God and it was basically blasphemy to try and change it. Slavery. Footbinding,” he said, ticking off traditional practices that have been defeated through education and social change.
The key to ending child marriage is simple, he said. “Our appeal is to men. Men, men,” he added, thumping his chest.
It is not enough to invest in girls’ education or improve women’s health; men also must be educated, he added. Child marriage happens because men – fathers, village chiefs and religious leaders – allow it to happen.
See Factbox on The Elders' new initiative here.
See TrustLaw’s special multimedia report In Focus: Child Marriage here.