Mary Robinson and The Elders make child marriage prevention a top priority

Marcia G. Yerman – WNN Features

Mary Robinson with certified midwife and healthworker Nadhifa Ibrahim Mohamed in Dollow, Somalia where over 1,700 people cross between country borders on a daily basis. Somalian refugees have a higher risk of child marriage where early marriage can create a rapid succession of babies with a high risk of obstetric difficulty in childbirth. Image: Jennifer O'Gorman/Trocaire/July 2011

(WNN) 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, twenty-five thousand girls are married before they reach the age of eighteen. To grasp the numbers in real time, that is the equivalent of nineteen 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 eighteen in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child [CRC Article 1].

For girls who are wed before they turn eighteen 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 fifteen years of age are five times more likely to die in childbirth than young women in their twenties. The number drops slightly, to twice as likely, for girls between fifteen to nineteen years old.

Young woman shares experience as child bride Ethiopia
During June 2011 travels to Ethiopian communities affected by child marriage with the 'Towards an end to child marriage' campaign Mary Robinson (of The Elders) asks a young woman what she remembers about her wedding day. She replies, "It was the day I left school." Image: Ashenafi Tibebe/The Elders

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 nineteen 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 backstory 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.”

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