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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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Mary Robinson explained how The Elders—more accustomed to sitting down with government officials in North and South Korea, antagonists in the Middle East or peacemakers in Africa—arrived at this foray into basic human rights, in particular the rights of women and girls.

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

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“From the beginning, it was clear that we were going to seek as Elders to support the empowerment and the central role in development of girls and women,” she said. “After a really good discussion, we decided that one of the big problems is that religion and tradition get distorted and manipulated to subjugate women and girls, to reinforce that sense of being inferior in the community, in the family, in the country.”

“But then we asked the next question,” she said. “How do we address, in a practical way, the implications of this? We looked at the whole area of harmful traditional practices, and we recognized that child marriage was probably the best area for The Elders to seek to make an impact, because marriage is not a purely private matter.” It involves community leaders, tribal chiefs and religious figures, she said.

Research by a small Elders staff based in London, with the help of Equality Now and other rights and reproductive health organizations, found that there were small nongovernmental groups working on the issue in at least thirty countries. The value-added that The Elders could provide for their work was to bring these groups into a network. “We hope to involve at least 150 member organizations running programs in twenty countries by December 2012,” Robinson said, adding that a fundraising target for the campaign has been set at “about $3 million.”

Robinson is also involved in a separate effort through the Aspen Global Health and Development initiative to bring more contraception to developing nations, where it is estimated by the UN and others that at least 215 million women who want family planning have no access to it or are barred by family pressures from seeking it. In recent years this practical side of reproductive health—getting contraceptives and clinical care to the world’s poorest women—has been a touchy subject, as some vocal women’s rights activists see it as a cultural intrusion in societies that traditionally value big families, or as using women’s bodies as tools of population control. Family planning must get back in the mainstream, Robinson said, “and it mustn’t be allowed to be distorted or mystified as a taboo subject.

“This is a central subject about health and development,” Robinson added. “We have to get back to that.” The poorest women in the world, she says, have not yet benefited from the promises of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, which resoundingly declared that women have the right to make decisions about their own bodies and reproductive lives.

Brundtland, the former Norwegian prime minister, speaking in an interview on the insufficiencies of laws barring child marriage and other practices harmful to girls and women, noted that many countries have laws against marriage under age 18 that are not enforced. In an age of increased migration and immigration, she said, some of the practices are finding their way into the global North. “Let me give you the example of India,” she said. “A law against child marriage has been there since the 1920s—and India has the highest number of girls married as children as any other place. At least half, maybe most, of the countries in the world pass laws and don’t follow them. It can’t be taken for granted that just because something is in the Constitution or the law that anything happens. We need the NGOs’ attention. We need the press’s attention. We need everyone to hold people and systems and governments accountable.”

Those who once argued against challenging traditions among immigrant communities in the West are doing some rethinking, Brundtland said. “I remember many times in the years when I was prime minister or opposition leader that as we were having more and more immigrants from other religions and other cultures, we were super-sensitive to do anything that could be seen to be not respectful enough of other people’s native cultures and traditions.”

Change came as the children of immigrants came into focus in school, she said. Youngsters were apparently being shipped home for arranged marriages or to have their external genitalia excised in the practice known as female genital mutilation, or genital cutting. The practice of removing (often crudely) the clitoris and sometimes the labia is excruciatingly painful, medically damaging, occasionally life-threatening and usually robs a woman of sexual sensation.

“It took time before we even saw some of the really harmful practices that were happening in Oslo without us even knowing,” Brundtland said. “It took years before people who were working at the local level, community workers and teachers
et cetera, started to identify that [families] were taking young girls out of school at 14 or 15, and they disappeared into Pakistan or India or wherever. Nobody really followed up.

“I know that in the last ten or fifteen years in Norway, a lot is being done to try to help young girls from families like this,” she continued. “They have been brought up in Norway. They have rights. They are protected. They are helped, and there is legal action taken. This applies to female cutting. It is not allowed for a couple in Norway to take the children to Africa, cut them there and bring them back.

“There is much more attention to systematically trying to help young people,” she went on. “For years and years, this super-sensitivity went too far. We were not thinking enough about child rights, about women’s rights, about the legal system of our nation. In societies like ours, if it is illegal it is supposed to not happen. And if it happens you are supposed to be prosecuted.”

There is some irony in the fact that many people in Northern Europe were the most opposed to intruding into cultural practices, however harmful, until such practices appeared closer to home. This was also true a couple of decades ago when well-meaning Americans advised against condemning female genital mutilation, because the practice seemed important to Africans. Some UN agencies and Equality Now did tremendous work in changing minds by supporting and giving the lead to African women—and men—who opposed the custom, often at great risk. It is now illegal in the United States, Canada, Australia, much of Europe and more than a dozen African countries.

Archbishop Tutu, in his Elders blog, noted as others have that some persistent customs palmed off as religious are not part of religion at all. This point is made forcefully by Gamal Serour, director of the International Islamic Centre for Population Studies and Research at Al Azhar University in Cairo, a leading center of Islamic teaching, which has declared unconditionally that female genital mutilation has never been part of Islam.

Suad Abu-Dayyeh, the Jordan-based program consultant on the Middle East and North Africa for Equality Now, said in a phone interview from Amman that other cultural practices are intrinsic to Muslim societies because they are part of Sharia law and may be in the Koran. Polygamy, for example, is a very sensitive subject because it is condoned by religion, and local nongovernmental groups working on the rights of girls and women approach it with great trepidation, Abu-Dayyeh said. Child marriage, however, has become easier to bring into the open.

* * *

Only two nations in the Middle East/North Africa region, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, have not set a legal minimum marriage age; Equality Now is working with local partners involved in cases in those countries. The larger aim of campaigns by local groups is to get governments to codify personal status laws that would comply with international agreements and conventions that recommend a minimum marriage age of 18 for girls. Meanwhile, advocates for girls and women watch warily as Islamist parties gain ground in the wake of revolts in Arab nations, where existing laws protective of women may be in jeopardy. “In the region now we are really scared,” says Abu-Dayyeh. “There is lots of fear about where women’s rights will stand at the end of the day.”

Unicef the UN children’s fund, describes child marriage as “a violation of human rights whether it happens to a girl or a boy, but it represents perhaps the most prevalent form of sexual abuse and exploitation of girls.” More broadly, the Convention on the Rights of the Child asks governments that have ratified the document (the United States has not) to “take all effective and appropriate measures with a view to abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children.”

Archbishop Tutu classifies child marriage as this kind of harmful custom. “Child marriage is not a religious practice—it is a tradition,” writes Tutu. “There are many good traditions that bind communities together. But traditions are also not static—they evolve. Traditions that are harmful, that have outlived their purpose, must be challenged. Foot binding disappeared once social views about it were challenged and it was outlawed. Slavery was also defended as a ‘way of life’—repugnant as that sounds. I remember those who defended apartheid on ‘cultural’ grounds. All these practices have, thankfully, largely disappeared.”

The Elders want child marriage to follow these practices into history.

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