To achieve the MDGs, put girls at the centre of development

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Thursday, 22 September, 2011

Ela Bhatt argues that ending child marriage can accelerate progress towards achieving the MDGs. But to tackle this harmful practice, we need to encourage families and communities to value girls for their education, skills and work – not for their fertility.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are a sorry story. That’s not a message that many people like to hear. After all, the MDGs were drafted with a noble aim in mind: to tackle the hunger and disease that affect billions of people and to lift the world’s poor out of poverty.

We are fast approaching the 2015 deadline for meeting the MDGs yet we find ourselves wondering why, despite our best intentions and efforts, we have not made significant headway. Maternal mortality, for example, remains shamefully high in many poor countries and we are struggling to achieve universal education beyond primary level.

Clearly, we need a fresh vision.

Girls have the potential to lift their communities out of poverty

As Elders, we believe that ending child marriage can accelerate progress towards achieving the MDGs. We are appealing for people and their leaders around the world to come together and end the practice, which directly hinders the achievement of six of the eight Goals.

We cannot hope, for example, to reduce maternal deaths when brides as young as 11 or 12 give birth before their young bodies are ready. Nor can we hope to reduce HIV/AIDS when child brides are unable to negotiate safe sexual practices with their older husbands.

Above all, we cannot hope to end poverty and hunger when young brides are forced to drop out of school, denying them the educational and economic opportunities that help lift them and their children out of poverty.

When girls have the chance to go to school and learn the skills that will enable them to earn a living as a woman, the benefits are felt community-wide. When a woman works, it is not just to earn enough money to survive, it is to improve the present and invest in a better future for her and her family. The productive work of women is the thread that weaves a society together.

Giving girls alternatives to marriage

I will not criticise the poor for making a decision to marry off a daughter if it helps to pay for food or means to earn an income. I argue instead that we need to find alternatives to child marriage, encouraging the idea that girls should be valued for something other than their youth and fertility.

What we need is a shared vision, where we build a partnership with poor communities and ensure that the potential of girl children is recognised and realised. When we allow girls to be girls, not brides, and we provide them with the opportunity to learn skills, they can earn an income as an adult. And in my experience with SEWA, a trade union of over one million poor working women in India, it is work that gives meaning and dignity to the life of a woman.

To achieve the MDGs, put girls at the centre of development

I see ending child marriage as a positive approach to help realise the MDGs because it places girls at the centre of development. Ending child marriage gives girls the space and freedom to grow into women able to work and contribute to their communities, to their families and most importantly, to build a better life for themselves.

The MDGs have the potential to be a powerful tool to end to global poverty, but they will only be achieved when underpinned by the realisation that poverty cannot be removed without the empowerment of girls and women.

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