New York: When the 66th General Assembly of the United Nations convened in New York City in mid-September, those striving to get attention for specific agendas presented their causes at satellite conferences around Manhattan.
Members of The Elders, a contingent of independent global leaders focusing on "peace and human rights," made appearances at the Clinton Global Initiative and the Mashable Social Good Summit. Their focus: to bring awareness to the "neglected" topic of child marriage through the Girls Not Brides platform. The campaign dictum is, "Let girls be girls and not brides."
Working to bring together non-governmental agencies from around the world, Girls Not Brides is confronting a practice that prohibits 10 million girls -- annually -- of the right to an education, health, and security.
The stats are overwhelming. On a daily basis, 25,000 girls are married before they reach the age of 18. To grasp the numbers in real time, that is the equivalent of 19 girls being married without their consent every minute. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights drawn up in 1948, a "marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses."
Child marriage occurs worldwide. It affects 46 percent of underage girls in Sub-Sahara Africa; 38 percent in South Asia; 2 percent in the Caribbean and Latin America; 18 percent in North Africa and the Middle East. The highest rate, 75 percent, is evident in Niger. More than a third of child brides inhabit India. Some groups in Europe and North America engage in the "custom" as well. A child is defined as being any human being below the age of 18 in the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child [CRC Article 1].
For girls who are wed before they turn 18 years old, there are health concerns with major ramifications. They are at a far higher risk of fistula and other pregnancy related injuries. Those under 15 years of age are five times more likely to die in childbirth than young women in their 20s. The number drops slightly, to twice as likely, for girls between 15 to 19 years old.
Child brides face greater odds of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, because they cannot advocate for safe sex practices. When they give birth, as opposed to mothers who are over 19 years old, their offspring are 60 percent more likely to die before they reach their first birthday.
Child brides are also prone to be victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse. Intrinsically intertwined with issues surrounding gender equality, family planning and maternal health, child marriage is dually driven by tradition and poverty.
One ripple effect has caused six of the eight 2015 Millennium Development Goals to be thwarted as child brides are forced to terminate their schooling. Stymied educational opportunities result in limited economic options without possibility of breaking the continuous rounds of poverty.
To learn more about The Elders role in this initiative, I sat down with human rights advocate and "Elder" Mary Robinson, who served as the first woman President of Ireland (1990-1997) before becoming the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997-2002). She spoke at length about what her past experiences bring to the table.
Robinson also delved into the back story of how The Elders were started by Nelson Mandela. The purpose was to band together a group of accomplished people who could bring their insights to the front to help with global conflict resolution. Engaging "courageous and innovative" local people on the ground "who know best what is transpiring," Robinson outlined how The Elders have been able to form global alliances.
Starting with a strong commitment to champion the empowerment of girls and women, they recognized that the topic of child marriage needed "moral leadership." The Elders knew they had to intervene on behalf of girls worldwide despite the sensitivity of the problem. These girls can, if allowed, become potential agents of change.
To do this Robinson understood that a push had to be made to win the hearts and minds of those who have positions as tribal leaders to individual women. Imposing a point of view solely from the top down was not going to work. There had to be a strong grassroots effort. Social institutions had to be addressed by facilitating a community dialogue, particularly in rural conservative populations where there is a strong fear of ostracism. A major piece of the puzzle included bringing men into the conversation to change the thinking on child marriage.
"It's all part of the same issue. The role in the home is not as important," says Robinson. "The country girl in the village has no voice. She knows from the adult that she is not as important as her brother."
Robinson is well versed in confronting concerns that inhabit unpopular and uncomfortable spheres. Elected at the age of 25 to the Irish Senate -- when Catholicism dominated the mores -- her first goal was tackling the legislative legalization of contraceptives. (At that time, married women in Ireland had no birth control rights.) "I completely underestimated the reaction. I was denounced from pulpits," Robinson told me. The reason? She was addressing "deeper cultural issues." From challenging the "cultural norm," she learned that "you need a lot of patience and understanding."
"If we don't promote education for girls, we won't get to the millennium goals," said Robinson as she circled back to the relationship of women and tradition -- and the "role of religion" when it is abused and distorted to subjugate women. "Girls are losing hope for the future," she added.
Investing in girls can change perceptions as they are valued beyond their ability to be laborers, producers of children, or second-class citizens. Even in countries where there is legislation in place, such as Ethiopia, the reality does not match the law. The average age of a girl bride is 12.
"We need to scale up," Robinson stated resolutely. "Child marriage is not adequately discussed. It's a travesty for girls and their human rights... an unacceptable practice." However, she optimistically points out how "practices can be changed," underscoring her belief that child marriage can be "ended in one generation."
At the Mashable Social Good Summit, where Robinson shared the stage with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, she had the ear of an audience dialed in to the power of social media. She understands how the value of digital tools can be a "highly influential way to have a conversation about an issue that is way underestimated." With a Twitter handle and a website set up linking to "What Can I Do?" -- crowdsourcing awareness and activism on behalf of child marriage was launched.
"It's about the oxygen of recognition and breaking the cycle," Robinson concluded. Before she stood up to leave she added, "It's important that we have the opportunity to advocate."
During June 2011 travels to Ethiopian communities affected by child marriage with the 'Towards an end to child marriage' campaign, Mary Robinson asks a young woman what she remembers about her wedding day. She replies, "It was the day I left school."
Photo Courtesy of Ashenafi Tibebe/The Elders.
This article originally appeared on the website Women News Network.