The Elders

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“My life, my decision: stop child marriage”

In February 2012 four Elders travelled to Bihar, India, to meet a group of young people campaigning to stop child marriage. After listening to the teenage girls and boys, Desmond Tutu, Ela Bhatt, Gro Brundtland and Mary Robinson raised the issue with Bihar's Chief Minister, urging him to support the growing movement to end this harmful practice.

 

The Indian state of Bihar has the highest rate of child marriage in the country, with almost half of all women married by the age of 15 – in spite of a law prohibiting marriage before the age of 18 for girls and 21 for boys.

The Elders were in Bihar to visit Jagriti – or 'awakening' in Hindi – a new campaign led by young people to eliminate child marriage in India. Their slogan is “My life, my decision, stop child marriage.”

As part of its campaign to mobilise youth across the state of Bihar, Jagriti runs a signature campaign asking young people to pledge not to marry early - and asking parents to pledge not to marry off their children before the legal age of marriage. They have already collected more than 21,000 pledges.

Mary Robinson said how inspired she was by Jagriti's young volunteers leading the campaign to stop child marriage.

She spoke to the girls about the potential for girls and women to help their countries advance. "If a girl is educated and doesn't marry too young, and she becomes active in her community, that community prospers, and the country prospers."

“If adults know child marriage is wrong, why do they still allow it to happen?” A girl asks Mary Robinson and her fellow Elders.

Most girls in the group said they want to be free to pursue their education, but are under great pressure to get married. This pressure is more than a matter of tradition; families worry that girls are vulnerable and often consider early marriage as a way to protect them from both physical danger and the social taboo associated with early sexual activity.

The Elders met a group of boys aged between 18 and 21. All students, they told the Elders how most of them have been under pressure from their families to marry early. Often this is because their families want another girl to help with the housework, or because marrying girls young reduces the dowry costs.

Archbishop Tutu asked the boys how many others agreed with them about the importance of delaying marriage. "Only 20 per cent," they said. "But we are planning to make it 100 per cent."

Premnath, 18 (centre), told Archbishop Tutu how after his mother passed away last year, his father is pressurising him to find a wife to help around the house.

Thanks to the training provided by Pathfinder International, the organisation that initiated and supports Jagriti, Prem has managed to collect 7,000 signatures that support an end to child marriage.

Desmond Tutu and Ela Bhatt heard from members of Jagriti and reflected on their own experiences of social transformation.

"When you're trying to change a system," said Archbishop Tutu, "it often takes a very long time. In our country, we fought against apartheid. Many people were arrested, many were killed. But eventually, justice and freedom won. South Africa is a free nation – it struggled for a long time; don't give up!"

The Elders met representatives of panchayats (local councils) from across Bihar, who are responsible not only for implementing the law on child marriage, but also for registering births and marriages in the state. They spoke to the Elders about the challenges they face in their work.

The Elders met Bihar's Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar, and presented him with a pile of Jagriti pledges.

Archbishop Tutu praised his commitment to addressing child marriage: "We have been surprised at the politicians' will to do something positive about this."

Since this meeting, the Chief Minister has contacted the young people at the Jagriti campaign and offered to work with them.

Photos: Tom Pietrasik | The Elders


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