Nobel laureate and anti-apartheid icon Archbishop Desmond Tutu arrives in India next week to garner support for a new cause - eliminating child marriage.
Child marriage is a marriage that involves at least one spouse who is under the age of 18. India has the 14th highest rate of child marriage in the world (47%), behind Niger (75%), Chad (72%), Mali (71%) and Bangladesh (66%). India also has the largest number of child brides in the world -- an estimated one-third of the global total.
Archbishop Tutu will be here from February 6-10 as part of The Elders, a group of independent global leaders brought together by former South African president Nelson Mandela in 2007 to create awareness for his new initiative "Girls Not Brides" a global partnership to end child marriage.
In an e-mail interview to HT, Archbishop Tutu said, "Ten million girls are married out each year before the age of 18. When you meet some of these girls and listen to their stories, you realize this affects every aspect of their lives: they drop out of school ….their young bodies bear children before they are physically ready to do so; they are unable to negotiate safe sexual practices with their older husbands. They really are some of the most vulnerable and voiceless people on earth."
Tutu and his team are scheduled to meet Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar and HRD minister Kapil Sibal. Its relevant as Bihar happens to be one of the Indian states with the highest prevalence (69 %) of marriage among girls under 18.
"Child marriage is not only a human rights issue. It is also a development issue. We have decided to focus on the issue of child marriage in India as it is bound to issues such as child malnourishment, infant and maternal mortality. The children of child brides are at risk, too," Archbishop Tutu added.
The primary objective of Tutu's visit is to learn about the causes of child marriage in India, and to encourage local efforts to end the practice. Other global leaders accompanying Tutu include Gro Harlem Brundtland, Norway's first woman Prime Minister and Mary Robinson, first woman president of Ireland.
The Elders team will also attend the first regional conference of "Girls Not Brides" that will bring together more than 80 civil society organizations from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka to share experience and build regional momentum towards ending child marriage.
The Elders' interest in child marriage grew out of their commitment to promoting gender equality, with particular emphasis on addressing religious and traditional practices that perpetuate discrimination. Their commitment is not rhetorical; The Elders want to help achieve real change on the ground.
Full transcript of the e-mail interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Q) From an anti-apartheid icon and peace campaigner to lending voice to burning issues like the evil of child marriage. How will you describe the journey?
A) I don't know if I would call it a journey so much as a belief in the fact that we are all bound together as one human family. Have you heard of Ubuntu? It's an African philosophy that says my humanity is bound up in yours - that I need you in order to be me. You see, we are made for interdependence. When we deny women and girls the rights and opportunities to which they are entitled, then we men impoverish ourselves.
I grew up in a society that judged me on something I was born with - the colour of my skin. We were discriminated against on the basis of something we could do nothing about. And then, lo and behold, the white people were surprised that we were angry, that we stood up for the rights to which we were entitled. We're doing the same with girls and women! They are being penalised for something they can do nothing about - their gender. By ending child marriage, by empowering girls and ensuring they complete their education, we are not just helping the girls concerned. We believe that change will benefit their entire communities - men included. We are made for this interdependence. That is why I am as committed to ending child marriage as I was to ending apartheid.
Q) What are your views on the scourge of child marriage? What according to you are the reason for its high prevalence in developing economies like Africa and India?
A) There is no doubt in my mind that child marriage is a harmful practice. 10 million girls are married out each year before the age of 18. When you meet some of these girls and listen to their stories, you realise this affects every aspect of their lives: they drop out of school before they can complete their education; their young bodies bear children before they are physically ready to do so; they're unable to negotiate safe sexual practices with their older husbands. They really are some of the most vulnerable and voiceless people on earth.
As for why so many of them live in India and my home continent of Africa, well poverty, of course, is an important reason. Sadly in many communities where child marriage is practised, girls are not valued as much as boys - they are seen as a burden. The challenge will be to change parents' attitudes and emphasise that girls who avoid early marriage and stay in school will likely be able to make a greater contribution to their family and their community in the long term.
Child marriage also happens in communities simply because that's how things have always been - it is justified as tradition. But I strongly believe that harmful traditions, traditions that have outlived their purpose, must be challenged. Traditions such as foot binding and slavery were once seen as a way of life; thankfully they have now largely disappeared. Who's to say that child marriage can't go the same way?
Q) Any particular reason why the Elders decided to focus on the issue of child marriage in India which has other more pressing social concerns like high prevalence of malnourished children, infant mortality and maternal mortality?
A) These issues are all connected. Until the Elders started to find out more about child marriage, I had not realised how bound it was to issues such as child malnourishment, infant mortality and maternal mortality. When a young girl marries, she is soon expected to prove her fertility, but the results can be dangerous: a girl under 15 is five times more likely to die in childbirth than a woman in her 20s. The children of child brides are at risk, too. When a mother is under 18, her baby's chance of dying in its first year of life is 60 per cent greater than that of a baby born to a mother older than 19. Child marriage is not only a human rights issue. It is also a development issue. Child marriage hinders the realisation of six of the eight Millennium Development Goals, from poverty eradication to education for all, gender equality, child and maternal health, as well as the fight against HIV/Aids. By tackling child marriage, we can help to accelerate the important work that is already being done to tackle all of these equally important issues.