The Elders

Independent global leaders working together for peace and human rights.


Towards an end to child marriage

In June 2011 Elders Gro Brundtland, Graça Machel, Mary Robinson and Desmond Tutu travelled to Ethiopia to visit communities affected by child marriage and convene a meeting of experts and activists working to end child marriage around the world.


In the vast Amhara region of northern Ethiopia, which has a population of 19 million, the most common age for a girl to marry is 12.

Here a married woman in the village of Birhan Meske shares her story with Gro Brundtland, Desmond Tutu and Mary Robinson. Desmond Tutu said he was “shattered” to meet women who had been married as young as 8 or 10.

These schoolgirls participate in the Berhane Hewan project, run by the Ethiopian government with the support of the Population Council and the United Nations Population Fund, in which the whole community is involved in discussion about the benefits of educating girls and delaying marriage.

Yelamuork (wearing light green scarf) told the Elders that she doesn’t want to marry young – she wants to be a doctor.

The Elders were impressed that men in nearby Ambo Meske village were willing to discuss gender equality. Many men have taken part in courses that raise issues such as family care, non-violence, alcohol abuse and sharing domestic duties.

Most people in Amhara are Orthodox Christians. A priest from the local community (wearing white turban) told the Elders that his faith does not permit child marriage. Working with religious and traditional leaders is a key element of The Elders’ efforts to end this harmful practice.

Mary Robinson asked a young woman what she remembers about her wedding day. She replied, “It was the day I left school”.

Gedefaw Mengistu and his wife Himanot Yehewala told the Elders that their parents forced them to marry when he was 18 and she was just 13 years old. Himanot wanted to complete her education and tried to run away, but her mother threatened to kill herself if Himanot did not get married. “I was not mature physically or emotionally so it was not easy for me to go and sleep with my husband,” she said.

In the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu met the President of Ethiopian Muslim Islamic Affairs Supreme Council, Sheikh Ahmedin Abdulahi Chello. Like his Orthodox Christian counterpart, Sheikh Ahmedin has spoken out publicly against child marriage.

During one session at the Elders-convened meeting with experts and activists from around the world, Elders Gro Brundtland, Desmond Tutu, Graça Machel and Mary Robinson discussed how to help end child marriage.

“Traditions are man-made”, said Graça Machel. “They can be changed. We must be respectful, but we must have the courage to say when change is necessary.”

Learning from each other: participants shared experience and knowledge about effective projects and programmes tackling child marriage.

As Graça Machel writes: “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.”

Those at the meeting emphasised that ending child marriage requires a combination of measures including community dialogue and information, improved access to education and health services, and effective legal frameworks.

The Elders were glad of the opportunity to speak to experts and activists, listening to their experiences of successful initiatives to tackle child marriage and sharing ideas for bringing about change on a global scale.

70 women and men from 23 countries took part in the two-day meeting, at the end of which they agreed to create a global alliance to end child marriage.

Graça Machel thanked all the participants. “You are so so courageous,” she said. “Many of us would not have the courage to deal with issues of this nature. And your reward will be that girl who says “I am and I can and I want” – and that people listen.”

The Elders have identified child marriage as a central challenge to development – it endangers girls’ health, restricts their education, and perpetuates the cycle of poverty. This meeting was part of The Elders’ efforts to help build a global alliance to end this harmful traditional practice.