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Catalysing action to end child marriage – on the road with The Elders in India

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“It may be hard to measure their direct impact on the global task of ending child marriage, but this visit, for me at least, has me convinced that The Elders are creating a real tipping point.” Pam Omidyar, founder of Humanity United and member of The Elders' Advisory Council, blogs about joining the Elders in India and their efforts to elevate the issue of child marriage.

It is always delightful to spend time with The Elders. Their wisdom, in tandem with their compassion and their penchant for humour brings wonderful inspiration to everyone they encounter. This trip, with Archbishop Tutu, Ela Bhatt, Gro Brundtland and Mary Robinson, brings us to India to continue The Elders’ work on the challenge of ending child marriage. Here, 47 per cent of girls are married before the age of 18, and in some parts of the country prevalence rates are well over 60 per cent.

The Elders’ trip to Ethiopia a year ago, where they brought together a group of activists for a first strategy meeting, has helped create a global movement called Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage. As The Elders have elevated this issue globally, and their intention to visit India was made known, this has also shed light on the good efforts to end this practice in India where social and cultural norms must move in alignment with the legal norms already in place.

Two events on this trip in particular highlighted for me both how The Elders create the political and social will to address child marriage as a human rights and gender equality issue, and how they also deeply listen to and learn from people whose lives are directly impacted by child marriage. Our visit to a rural village in the state of Bihar, and later in a meeting with the Speaker of the Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament), Meira Kumar, they truly showed the powerful force that community engagement and equal opportunity can bring to maximising human potential, not just for girls, but to everyone’s benefit.

In Bihar, one of India’s poorest states, where child marriage rates are among the highest in the country, the four Elders drove 90 minutes to a school in a rural village to meet young people who are part of Jagriti (“Awakening”), a social change campaign to end child marriage, led by young people themselves. The Elders encouraged the boys and girls of this effort and discussed their ideas for change. Then they met with members of the Panchayat (local council), and encouraged them to listen to their children and to help enforce India’s laws.

Later that day, we met the Chief Minister of Bihar state, Mr Nitish Kumar, who shared with the Elders the state-level programmes designed to encourage girls’ education and keep them from marrying before 18. In return, the Elders shared their experiences and presented the Chief Minister with a stack of Jagriti pledges from adults, boys and girls who have promised to not marry before 21 and 18 respectively, in accordance with India’s laws. I’ve just heard that the Chief Minister has contacted the young people from Jagriti directly, promising to work with them to end child marriage! In less than a day, the Elders had connected the spectrum of people power across a vast state. It was humbling to witness.

The next day, the Elders again met with Meira Kumar. She greeted the Elders so warmly and her presence and welcoming words were full of grace and wisdom. She spoke of the shared vision of human dignity for all as a goal of the Elders, and as her vision for India. We were told that Ms Kumar was from the Dalit (Untouchable) caste. It is unfathomable to imagine that people like her might never succeed, because of the caste system. It breaks my heart to think of the lost potential of so many millions of people, especially girls, who are also denied access or opportunities to basic human rights because of their gender.

Millions of girl children in India receive less nutrition, less education, less rights, than the boys. Can you imagine India’s accelerated development once these rights are made accessible to every Indian regardless of gender or caste? When we suppress girls’ rights, how many millions of Ela Bhatts or Meira Kumars has India lost?

It may be hard to measure their direct impact on the global task of ending child marriage, but this visit, for me at least, has me convinced that The Elders are creating a real tipping point. Their listening and encouragement of ongoing efforts here is helping to galvanise a new level of cooperation and enthusiasm that has been so inspiring to witness. Their support for the Girls Not Brides campaign has gotten off to an incredible start. Truly I believe their visit and continued attention on the issues of child marriage and gender equality will allow us to say, within a generation, that these disparities no longer exist. It is a hopeful vision to hold in my heart as this trip comes to an end.

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