Farah Mohamed Headshot

She-lanthropy: Mabel van Oranje on Ending Child Marriage

Posted: Updated:

2013-07-27-MabelvanOranjeSaltflatsRajasthanPhotocreditTomPietrasikTheElders1.jpg

I have been accused of "stalking" people from time to time. I choose my subjects very carefully. They need to be inspirational, smart, ambitious, not afraid to stand up for what they believe in and ultimately, they need to want to make a difference in whatever issue they are most passionate about. I remember when I first learnt of Mabel van Oranje. I was reading a story about how a group of high profile, high-powered women and men had come together to eradicate child marriage; they are the Elders led by Nelson Mandela. As the CEO of the Elders at the time, Mabel was quoted in the article and I remember her words were matter of fact, insistent and deliberate about the necessity of eradicating child marriage. She left an impression so I got busy with Google. I learnt that she was a peace activist, former head of more than a few of the world's most forward thinking organizations, a mom, a social entrepreneur and a real live princess too. I sought her out and to my delight she was receptive. We met over lunch while attending the Clinton Global Initiative in New York. Between the grilling of our fish and the arrival of our Greek yogurt and espressos, I felt as though I had just dined with one of the most incredible leaders of our time. As I tour around the world with this column, I am pleased to share with you Mabel van Oranje who resides in the UK, and is often found working side by side with communities and their leaders to eradicate child marriage.

What specific moment made you take up the cause of championing the eradication of child marriage?
I will never forget one of the first times when I met a child bride. I was in Ethiopia in May 2011 visiting projects that provide support to young brides and girls vulnerable to early marriage. I met a young mother and asked her how old she was when she married. She didn't know. Like many girls her birth was never registered, but she estimated that she was between 5 and 7 years old when she became a wife.

At the time my eldest daughter was 6 years old and I was struck by the enormous contrast. Any opportunity that life might have held for this young woman was squandered the moment she married. She was never able to go to school; she had children at a very young age and numerous health problems as a result. She still looked like a child to me yet she had clearly aged.

Like many people, I knew that child marriage was not a positive practice for girls, but it was not until I began to find out more about the problem in early 2010 that I learnt how widespread child marriage is and how devastating are its consequences. We are talking about 14 million girls a year who are denied their rights to health, to education, to live in safety, to economic opportunity! It's a perpetuator of poverty that we can no longer keep hidden.

What was the biggest challenge you faced at first and how did you overcome it?
As I learned more about the issue, I realized that there is no easy solution to child marriage. It's a complex problem, driven by many different factors. Ultimately, lasting change will only happen at the grassroots level when communities decide together that child marriage is a harmful practice and that they will all be better off by ending the tradition. There cannot be a top-down solution to this problem - although more international attention, donor funding, and implementation of national laws will be helpful to foster local change.

It became clear that an effective effort to end child marriage would require a bottom-up movement, bringing together those organizations that are working to bring about change at the local level. That's the spirit in which Girls Not Brides, a Partnership of nearly 300 non-governmental organizations from across 50 countries, was created.

What aspect of your work most interests you?
Ending child marriage might seem like a daunting task. Some say that it's impossible to bring a centuries-old tradition to an end. But as Graça Machel says, traditions are made by people so traditions can be changed by people. Look at other traditions that people thought couldn't be changed, like foot binding in China or the change in people's attitudes over recent decades towards gay rights. It is fascinating to see how traditions and attitudes can and do evolve.

When you think of the future of this cause, what do you see?
There's no doubt that ending child marriage will be a long and difficult process. We have to be smart, we have to be respectful, and we have to have the courage to learn from what is and isn't working. It will be challenging because in the 21st century we always want quick solutions; patience has become a scarce commodity.

Ultimately, I am convinced that we can eradicate child marriage in one generation. When you ask child brides what they want for their own daughters, they usually give you two answers: they want their girls to go to school and they want their girls to marry as adults. So if we keep this generation of young girls out of marriage, there's little doubt that their children will be able to avoid it too.

To succeed, a social entrepreneur must possess what 2 skills?
I think that a willingness to build unlikely alliances is essential. You need to be open-minded about who your partners for change are.

You also need a big vision and the conviction that the impossible is possible. You won't achieve your vision unless you're committed for the long haul, so you need determination, stamina and perseverance. Accept that you'll have setbacks but keep your eye on that long-term goal.

What is more important, power or influence and why?
Power is often linked to a formal position and such positions are not necessarily filled by people who will use it for positive change. I look at influence as a form of informal power that derives not from a formal position, but from experience, from commitment, from determination. If you want to create lasting change, you need all of these to come together.

What is more important - education or opportunity - in today's marketplace?
In my view, access to education is one of the most treasured opportunities that exist. There is a lot more that we can do both in our home countries and internationally to ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality education and safe schools. Without education, it is difficult to make use of the opportunities that life offers. It is also worth noting that a good education is one of the most important contributing factors in helping girls to delay marriage.

What advice would you give to your 18 year-old self?
Learn, explore and don't be afraid to make mistakes. Failures provide some of life's most valuable lessons.

What is next on your to do list?
I am keen to support efforts to ensure that 'empowering girls and women' will be one of the new development goals for the international community, which will be launched in 2015. We cannot achieve the world's development potential if we ignore half the population!

Within this I would like to see that 'ending child marriage' is included as an indicator to measure progress on this development goal, as was recently recommended by an influential panel. You can be sure that if you're making progress on ending child marriage, you'll be making progress on your efforts to reduce global poverty.

Who has influenced you in your career and how?
As a peace activist during the Bosnian war in the early 1990s, I often visited the besieged city of Sarajevo. I learned from its courageous citizens that resistance and change are possible, even in the most dire circumstances. In spite of this attack on their freedom they persevered with dignity - showing continued tolerance towards strangers regardless of their ethnicity, organizing cultural events despite the shelling, keeping an independent media alive, in spite of the siege, to continue critical debate.

I also saw how ordinary individuals played inspiring leadership roles in this resistance. It made me realize that each and every one of us can make a difference - and that together we can achieve a lot, in spite of the challenges. Since then, I have met so many courageous people all over the world who stand up for freedom, justice and development. This has made me determined to support those people who are trying to promote change in the often most difficult situations.

Follow @MabelvanOranje on Twitter and watch her TEDx talk on child marriage. For more information about Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage visit www.GirlsNotBrides.org

Photo credit: Tom Pietrasik, The Elders