Desmond Tutu and Mary Robinson travelled to the United States last week to mark the inaugural International Day of the Girl on 11 October 2012. They took part in a series of events to highlight the importance of putting ending child marriage – a practice affecting 10 million girls every year – at the centre of development efforts.
On the day itself, Mary Robinson joined a Google+ Hangout to talk about the difficulties faced by those working to end child marriage. Together with Christy Turlington Burns of Every Mother Counts and UNICEF’s Dr Anju Malhotra, she heard from the Pakistani activist Muhammad Shahzad Khan who began a hunger strike when he was 12 years old to prevent his sister’s early marriage.
Mary Robinson emphasised that whole communities would have to take a stand against child marriage – as they are already doing, for example, in Ethiopia and India. Watch the video of the discussion here.
The previous day, after meeting Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at the US State Department in Washington DC, Archbishop Tutu had praised the role of women and young people in building a peaceful, more compassionate world: “Young people have said 'we are going to make poverty history'. Well, we are going to make child marriage history.”
Desmond Tutu with US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (Stephanie Sinclair | VII)
Archbishop Tutu and Mary Robinson also spoke at the launch of a new UNFPA report on child marriage. Archbishop Tutu commended the United Nations on holding the first-ever Day of the Girl, which represents "a recognition of the discrimination that has dogged women and girls for centuries". He noted the alarming new statistics released by UNFPA indicating that at current trends, the number of girls who will be married off before reaching 18 over the next decade is now believed to be 150 million worldwide, rather than 100 million as previously estimated.
Mary Robinson highlighted the progress made by the global Girls Not Brides partnership, which has done so much in the last year to support and bring together the hundreds of organisations around the world working to end child marriage. If we are serious about ending child marriage in a generation, she said, the international community must now integrate child marriage indicators into the Millennium Development Goals and into any future Sustainable Development Goals.
Later that day, the two Elders took part in a High Level Panel discussion alongside UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and others. Asked about his vow to be as committed to ending child marriage as he was to ending apartheid, Archbishop Tutu emphasised the harm done to families and communities where child marriage is practiced: "When you dehumanise another person, it dehumanises you as well. When you treat girls in the way we have done, it's not just something that happens to them – it happens to all of us."
He drew on the Elders' visit to Amhara, Ethiopia, to point out that such harmful practices can be ended even in the most conservative and traditional of communities. "It can happen, but are we willing to invest the energy and time?" he asked.
Archbishop Tutu concluded the discussion by asking the audience: “What do we say to child marriage?” – to which the audience responded with a resounding: “NO!” He then asked: “What do we say to the advancement of girls and women?” The audience shouted: “YES!”