If I were to share one piece of advice with those looking to make a positive difference, it would be that you cannot do it alone. I have always tried to listen to and learn from the experiences of others and to think creatively about how we can come together to achieve lasting change.
It is in that spirit that this week I have joined three of my fellow Elders in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to bring together people from around the world who are working to end child marriage. We want to hear what they are doing in their communities to end the practice, what works and what needs to be done to bring about change on a global scale.
Bringing global attention to a harmful traditional practice
We want to put ending child marriage at the top of the international agenda. I find it remarkable that so little attention has been paid to an issue that has a devastating impact on the life of an estimated ten million girls every year, and which is at the root of so many development challenges.
Progress on achieving the Millennium Development Goals, particularly those relating to women, are proceeding far too slowly and one of the underlying reasons for that is child marriage, which directly impacts six of the eight MDGs.
When a young girl marries, she is less likely to complete her education – if she ever attended school in the first place. Parents put less value on educating girls when they expect them to marry young and have children early. She is thereby denied the educational and economic opportunities to lift herself and her family out of poverty, which keeps her community poor, too.
She is often not physically ready to bear a child, yet she may find herself under pressure to prove her fertility. The results can be fatal: girls under 15 years old are six times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s.
She will also rarely be able negotiate sexual relations with her husband or have the power to reject unsafe sexual practices. Young brides are at a higher risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases than unmarried, sexually active girls of the same age.
Traditions can change
I believe that one of the main reasons why child marriage has not been tackled in a concerted way at the local, national or international level is that it is closely linked to tradition and it is often endorsed by religious figures.
There is no religion whose fundamental principles and values promote child marriage. It is not a matter of faith. Yet over time, a series of practices have developed which are now seen as “traditions”.
But traditions are made by us – and we can decide to change them. We should be respectful but we must also have the courage to stop harmful practices that impoverish girls, women and their communities.
It will not be easy; breaking taboos can be lonely work. Activists working at the grassroots sometimes feel isolated when they are at the forefront of such change. We hope that by coming together in an alliance, they can find strength in others also working to end child marriage. It is empowering in itself to know that there are people around the world dedicated to the same goals as you.
Moving in waves for change
I believe that to make a fundamental, positive difference we can no longer move in small groups but in waves for change. I am looking forward to meeting activists from around the world in Ethiopia this week so that we can come together as an alliance, unleash each other’s energy and build the momentum needed to end child marriage.