‘The Elders’ Take a Stand Against Child Marriage

‘The Elders’ Take a Stand Against Child Marriage

‘The Elders’ Take a Stand Against Child Marriage

These ten leaders are using their wealth of knowledge to attack a root cause of social dysfunction.


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.

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.

* * *

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.

“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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