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To end child marriage we need to speak louder, with one voice

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“To be successful in eradicating child marriage by 2030, there is no village, no township, no corner of this great continent that should not hear the message that child marriage can end.” Following a meeting with Girls Not Brides member organisations from across Africa last year, Graça Machel urges African civil society to unite in their efforts to end child marriage.

Civil society in Africa has one major weakness: we don’t realise how strong we are.

In Johannesburg last November, a campaigner from Zambia asked Archbishop Tutu and I about the commitment of African leaders to ending child marriage. In Sub-Saharan Africa, where more than a third of girls are married before they reach 18, this is a very valid question. We know that child marriage perpetuates poverty. We know that it puts girls at risk of violence and denies them their rights. In many countries in our region, it is already illegal. Yet our leaders – political, religious and community leaders – feel little compulsion to do anything about it.

Let us be frank. Our presidents and prime ministers may know about child marriage; they may accept in principle that it should be tackled. But they want to win elections! The desire to remain in power means that they listen to the loudest voices in society. It is our job, as citizens, to apply that pressure – the real question is how.

Scale up: we can’t effect change alone

Archbishop Tutu and I were in Johannesburg to meet representatives of more than 90 member organisations of Girls Not Brides, who had come together from across Africa to share strategies for ending child marriage. My message to this vibrant and diverse group was that they must not underestimate the power of people. At the moment, we are not using the power we have as citizens to organise, mobilise, and really pressure our leaders to drive social change.

I know that civil society organisations themselves are too used to working in silos. They don’t collaborate enough, because they need to build their own identity as an organisation and show results to their funders. I recognise this challenge, but if we really want political leaders to hear our message, we need to speak louder, with one voice. Only when we join together and make collective demands for action will we reach the point where decision-makers find us impossible to ignore.

Working together also makes us more effective. An issue like child marriage impacts so many different areas that it is impossible to address it alone: we need to work with teachers to monitor how girls are performing and help them to stay in school; with the judiciary and police to encourage them to enforce laws against child marriage; with organisations that educate girls and women about sexual and reproductive health, run literacy and skills development programmes, and microcredit schemes that empower women to earn a living independently of their husbands. We need to reach out to religious organisations and traditional leaders and women’s groups; engage national and regional forums. By thinking strategically about how we build these partnerships, we can really scale up this work and pressure our governments to act too.

Graca Machel speaking at the Girls Not Brides conference in Johannesburg, South Africa, November 2012

Graça Machel speaking at the Girls Not Brides conference in Johannesburg, South Africa, November 2012
Photo: Marc Dryden-Schofield | Girls Not Brides

There is no way you can effect large-scale change on your own – however brilliant your ideas and strategies, these can only gain roots and bear fruits if you work with others. The activists, campaigners and experts we met during this 2-day meeting are all doing fantastic work at the national and community level. It was a privilege to be part of the process of bringing them all together and planning the next steps for this growing movement.

From grassroots to global

If you work with one family, they will look around them and say, ‘What will the neighbours think if I give my daughters a different kind of life to all the other girls?’ But when you bring families together to talk about the harmful effects of marrying young and the benefits of delaying marriage, they gain the courage to say, collectively, that they will change this practice.

Only when a big group of people embrace a cause and make it their own, do we really see change happen. This is why we need to scale up, from the community level to the national, to the sub-regional, to the global. This is how the movement to end child marriage will get bigger and stronger every day. We Elders will do whatever we can to amplify the voices of those at the grassroots and bring visibility to their work. But the real hard work is done by the people on the ground.

During the meeting, Archbishop Tutu told us that what really brought this issue home to him was when he thought about his own young granddaughters. It occurred to him that if they had been born somewhere else, they might already be brides. The change we want will happen like this: one individual, like Arch, begins to see child marriage as an affront to his own dignity – then another, and another.

At current rates, 10 million girls are married off every year: it’s a huge figure. If we are going to be successful in eradicating child marriage by 2030, there is no village, no township, no corner of this great continent that should not hear the message that child marriage can end. And it is the dedicated activists and educators and campaigners like those I met in Johannesburg who will transform these attitudes – one father, one family, one community at a time.

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