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'The Elders' Take a Stand Against Child Marriage | The Nation

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'The Elders' Take a Stand Against Child Marriage

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The idea first took shape in conversations between two old friends, musician Peter Gabriel and inventive entrepreneur Richard Branson. What the world needs now, they decided, is a nucleus of wise elder statesmen and women to grapple with seemingly intractable global issues that governments and international institutions overlook or have failed to correct. Gabriel and Branson sold the concept to Nelson Mandela, and in July 2007 The Elders were launched by Mandela at a ceremony in Johannesburg.

About the Author

Barbara Crossette
Barbara Crossette is The Nation's United Nations correspondent. A former foreign correspondent for the New York Times,...

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In less than five years, the ten former national and international leaders, along with two honorary members, who form The Elders—six of whom are winners of the Nobel Peace Prize and five, former heads of state or government—have been globe-trotting, with the luxury of time to spend immersing themselves in issues in the field, far from government offices.

The Elders, collectively or in smaller subgroups, have published many statements and held many meetings with major political players around the world. There have been no sensational breakthroughs so far, however. From the beginning, they have said that headlines are not their goal; they aim to offer analysis and guidance. Consequently, their work is not very well known, even among foreign-policy experts. Being former leaders goes only so far, and there have been embarrassing setbacks: The Elders were shut out of crumbling Zimbabwe by Robert Mugabe, to cite the most glaring example.

Who are The Elders? Their chair is the retired South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with Mandela, now in his 90s, as an honorary member and adviser. The others are Martti Ahtisaari, a Finnish diplomat and former president of Finland who also led crucial United Nations missions in Namibia and Kosovo; Kofi Annan, UN secretary general from 1997 to 2007; Ela Bhatt, a pioneer in women’s rights and economic empowerment in India; Lakhdar Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister and later head of UN missions in Iraq and Afghanistan; Gro Brundtland, a former prime minister of Norway and director-general of the World Health Organization; Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former president of Brazil; Jimmy Carter, former American president; Graça Machel, a leader in children’s rights, author of a groundbreaking 1996 UN report on children in armed conflict and former minister of education and culture in Mozambique; and Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and UN high commissioner for human rights.

Like Mandela, the Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is also an honorary Elder; they keep a chair empty for her. Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank microcredit network and also a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was a founding member but dropped out in 2009.

Collectively The Elders are coming together around issues that reflect their mostly liberal points of view and are looking for ways to energize support. They strongly backed recognition of Palestinian statehood by the UN. They condemn homophobia in Africa. Most recently and controversially, they have defied a taboo against criticizing cultural values and myths that hold back development in many poor nations.

In September they launched a campaign against child marriage. For a group that would seem to have a geopolitical agenda, this move into the social and cultural arena—with a central focus on girls—may seem surprising. For them it is logical. In many places, the intelligence, skills and productivity of half the population—the girls and women—are missing from national life. Development stalls, poverty grows and the ingredients for conflict accumulate.

The UN repeats its commitment to women daily, but it often falls short. Of the eight Millennium Development Goals adopted by member nations in 2000 to reduce poverty, disease and other hurdles on the way to progress by 2015, the one lagging farthest behind is a reduction in maternal mortality, a signal of the low priority of women’s issues. A new agency created to improve women’s status and rights, known as UN Women and led by former president of Chile Michelle Bachelet, is struggling to collect enough funds from governments and nongovernment sources to field strong programs in law and justice, among other areas often closed to women.

Meanwhile, Republicans in the US Congress are trying, again, to cripple the UN Population Fund and other international reproductive health organizations serving the world’s poorest women. A bid to cut off US money to the Population Fund failed in the latest round of authorizations, but the battle, echoing a campaign that stripped the fund of support through George W. Bush’s two presidential terms, is still alive.

Demographers have the projections to show that globally, the poorest women will be bearing most of the children in this century. They can least afford this burden, which they carry because reproductive choices—let alone rights—enjoyed by women in richer nations are so often denied them. When Kofi Annan was UN secretary general, he used to talk about the “cycle of poverty and high fertility,” which destroys lives and sets back progress in struggling nations.

Retired from public office, The Elders need no longer fear political fallout from positions they take. They bring diverse knowledge and experience from every region on a broad range of issues, from political and economic to social and environmental. They hash out which topics to tackle in two group meetings a year and in numerous phone calls and e-mails between those gatherings. These are headstrong people not timid about confronting power or questioning deeply rooted traditions.

“When we started we were a collection of individuals who had quite high profiles and were doing our own projects in different ways,” Mary Robinson said in an interview. “I think The Elders have matured a lot. Now each of us has recognized that The Elders as a group has a really significant opportunity to make a real difference.” As Archbishop Tutu, in his inimitable way, puts it, “We are learning to elder.”

Robinson, Brundtland, Machel and Tutu are the leading voices in Girls Not Brides, the new campaign to end child marriage, which was formally launched at the 2011 Clinton Global Initiative meeting in New York and has the backing of many foundations. It is estimated that 10 million girls a year worldwide, the majority in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, are married under the age of 18, some as young as 7 or 8.

The phenomenon of child brides is more universal than the focus on Asia and Africa would suggest. The minimum age of marriage in New Hampshire, for example, is 13 for girls, with parental consent; other American states also fall well under the 18-year-old mark recognized globally as the lowest acceptable age for girls to marry. Equality Now, a New York–based rights organization with international reach, prepared a table of marriage ages around the world for The Elders; it lists dozens of countries where adolescent girls marry, through force or by choice, between the ages of 14 and 17.

Forced marriages are not the only tragedy that befalls adolescent girls, says Yasmeen Hassan, the Pakistani-American global director of Equality Now. The organization, through its Adolescent Girls’ Legal Defense Fund, deals with incest, teacher rape and trafficking. Girls of school age have also been sold into bonded labor or dragooned into armed conflict, sometimes to serve as sex slaves, cooks and porters. “In the UN there’s a lot of focus on women’s rights,” Hassan, a Harvard-trained lawyer, said in an interview. “That’s great. Or children’s rights. Adolescent girls are the missing piece.” They are at their most vulnerable between childhood and adulthood—no longer children and not yet women, Hassan added.

Child marriage, when forced on a girl who has no say in a decision that ends her independent life before she can finish school or assert herself in any way, is a crushing violation of her human rights, as former UN human rights commissioner Robinson points out. It makes a girl more vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases and death in childbirth, because her small body is not ready for pregnancy. It is also one of the root causes of a wider societal dysfunction (along with the denigration and abuse of women) that severely hampers human development and, by extension, national development.

“I’m going to be as committed to ending child marriage as I was to ending apartheid,” Archbishop Tutu said recently, after he joined Brundtland and Robinson last summer to talk with young victims of the practice in northern Ethiopia, where forced marriage of young girls is widespread. “It is not enough for me to simply say that their voices should be heard, that more money needs to go towards girls’ education or health services and be done with it. That alone will not change what happens to child brides,” he wrote on his Elders blog.

“Child marriage occurs because we men allow it,” he wrote. “Fathers, village chiefs, religious leaders, decision-makers—most are male. In order for this harmful practice to end, we need to enlist the support of all the men who know this is wrong, and work together to persuade all those who don’t.”

National governments, almost all of which (except the United States) have ratified international conventions protecting children’s rights, may not be publicly criticizing the Elders’ campaign, but there are still many supporters of child marriage around the world, a lot of them women who cite tradition as well as economic and social concerns. Arranging the marriage of a young girl may lighten a family’s expenses if she is not likely to contribute to its income and a “good” husband can be found, usually meaning one who will support her. The transfer of a girl may seal a pact between families, or sometimes be the price parents have to pay if they have offended another clan. Socially, a young bride may be “safer” married, women say, meaning that the marriage will pre-empt unmarried sex. Virginity is still the test of marriageability for millions of girls and young women. Allegations of promiscuity can cost a girl her life.

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