Last month my fellow Elders and I travelled to India, a country I have long admired for the critical role it played in the struggle against apartheid. We South Africans owe a great deal to the moral leadership of our Indian sisters and brothers. Their principled stance, refusing to maintain diplomatic or trade relations with an apartheid government, was an example to the rest of the world – and a demonstration of the pressure that the international community can bring to bear on an unjust regime.
A generation later, India once again has the opportunity to show great courage and leadership by tackling one of the most critical issues facing humanity today: inequality between girls and boys, men and women.
An economic giant still grappling with chronic poverty
Today, India is not only the largest democracy in the world, it is also an economic giant in the making. India’s impressive growth rate over the past two decades is an inspiration for us all in the Global South. Lifting hundreds of millions of people out of chronic poverty has been a wonderful achievement.
Yet my heart aches for the millions of Indians still left behind by their country’s rising prosperity. This fantastic progress should not blind us to the fact that abject poverty continues to exist in every slum and every village. One third of the world’s poorest people are still to be found in India. In eight Indian states alone there are more people living in deep poverty than in the 25 poorest African countries put together. And the World Health Organisation tells us that almost half of all Indian children suffer stunted growth or are underweight.
Girls and women suffer disproportionately
I am a man of God, as you all know, and I believe that every son and every daughter is created equal in His eyes. Yet I am sad to say that in India, it is still the girls who are at the bottom of the heap. There is such a powerful, deep-rooted sense that boys are preferred, and this holds girls back from the moment they are conceived until they grow up and become mothers themselves.
Because they are seen as a burden, girls can suffer terribly in India. They are more likely than boys to be aborted, more likely to die as infants, more likely to be denied a full education and a fair wage for their work, and more vulnerable to trafficking. Being a girl in India can be a difficult and dangerous thing.
And yet I am not despondent. After visiting New Delhi and the state of Bihar, I am more confident than ever that India is prepared to tackle this huge inequality. Because Indian communities and their leaders are starting to realise how much potential lies in the empowerment of their sisters, mothers, wives and daughters.
Let girls and women realise their potential
If India is to eradicate poverty and fulfil its destiny as a developed nation, it must make the most of its fantastic human resources. Girls and women make up almost half of the population, yet currently almost half of them are married off before they turn 18. Imagine what would happen if these girls, instead of marrying as children, were allowed to take part in the Indian economic miracle!
For too long, child marriage has been a taboo topic. But change is slowly taking place. In Bihar, one of the poorest states in India, I met fantastic young girls and boys who desperately want to contribute to their country’s emerging prosperity. They have formed a movement called Jagriti (‘Awakening’) whose primary goal is to say ‘no’ to child marriage. They see it as a first step that will allow them to stay in school and get a proper education, find a decent job and eventually lift their communities out of poverty.
Desmond Tutu and Ela Bhatt with young volunteers at the Jagriti project
Because of its sheer size, India is home to one third of the world’s child brides. If young people succeed in eradicating this practice from their communities, not just in Bihar but across the whole of India, just think what a powerful example that would be to the rest of the world.
Momentum is building to end child marriage in India
These young people can’t stop child marriage alone. They need the support of their parents, teachers, religious and traditional leaders, elected officials and law enforcement officers.
We Elders were encouraged by the warm welcome we received from Indian political leaders, who recognise the importance of ending child marriage and emancipating girls and women. The Chief Minister of Bihar, whom we spoke to about the Jagriti campaign, has already contacted the young volunteers and offered to work with them! It was also wonderful to see business leaders, academics and movie stars coming together to become ‘champions’ to end child marriage.
I am not naive – I do not think that ending child marriage will solve all of India’s problems once and for all. And in India, like elsewhere in the world, change will not take place overnight. But momentum is building as more and more people come to realise how many lives could be transformed, how much India could advance, by ending this practice.
India is poised to become a very significant player on the world stage – as a moral leader, not just an economic powerhouse. I believe this moral leadership depends on finally giving girls and women their proper place: at the centre of India’s development.