Lakshmi Sundaram led Girls Not Brides for seven years as Executive Director from 2012 to 2019. As we say a fond farewell, we caught up with Lakshmi to hear her personal reflections on her time leading our global partnership.
What drew you to work on ending child marriage?
Early on in my time at Girls Not Brides, I came across the story of a girl called Laxmi. She did something extraordinary – she became the first person in her community to get her child marriage annulled. Laxmi’s story hit me right in the heart. I was, of course, deeply saddened that so many girls still have to face such huge challenges, but also incredibly angry. Child marriage ended in my family two generations ago – when my grandmother was married at age 13. Yet, today, there are still girls named Lakshmi being married.
There’s no good reason why the Laxmi I was reading about had to fight for her future, whereas I, Lakshmi, got to enjoy my childhood without fear of being married off. Becoming a mother to Meena has made this issue even more personal, especially when I see other little girls named Meena being married off, not much older than my own daughter. I am even more determined today that we need to make sure all of these Meenas, all of these Lakshmis, can have a bright future, wherever they may be, and whatever their background.
What has changed since you joined Girls Not Brides?
Back in 2012, when I brought up child marriage, people would say ‘there are bigger problems’ or ‘that sounds like a niche issue’. In fact, we had to spend much of the first few years of Girls Not Brides convincing governments, organisations, NGOs to take child marriage seriously.
Today, more and more people around the world say that they care about child marriage, know about our movement, and want to work together to get us to a happier, healthier, more gender equal world. Our partnership has extended its reach to more than 1000 organisations in over 100 countries. There’s real progress, and new commitments, and girls’ lives are being changed for the better every day.
The progress we’ve seen over the past seven years isn’t an accident. We, collectively – Girls Not Brides members, our partners, brave individual activists and the secretariat – have helped to catalyse it.
We’re now grappling with a whole host of new challenges – how to maintain momentum? How to ensure governments deliver on their promises? How to deal with backlash? The Girls Not Brides Global Meeting in Kuala Lumpur in 2018 really brought home to me how far we have come, but also how much we still have to do.
One thing that I’m proud has NOT changed is the ethos of the partnership – we’re willing to learn from our mistakes, and keep our eyes firmly on our end goal. Personally, I am grateful that members, colleagues and partners have been invested enough in this work to constructively call me out where necessary, so that I could change course. Holding ourselves and each other mutually accountable is critical.
So what will it take to end child marriage?
The girls I’ve met talk about the incredible pressures they’re under: from their families, schools, friends, community, media. It can be relentless. Child marriage is obviously a big part of what’s holding them back. But if a girl gets married the day after she turns 18, and nothing else in her life has changed, that’s not a success. It’s why we need to keep centring efforts to end child marriage within a broader context of girls’ rights and girl’s empowerment.
Nonetheless, talking about child marriage can be a fantastic entry point to addressing a whole host of issues that are important to girls – including access to education, sexual and reproductive health and rights, safety and livelihoods.
One message I’ve kept coming back to throughout my work is that there isn’t a ‘silver bullet’ to end child marriage. As our Theory of Change shows, empowering girls is critical, but it’s not enough. We can’t expect girls to change society by themselves. We need to help families and communities change the way they view girls, and demand other options for them. And we need to work with governments and service providers to ensure these options – such as safe, accessible, high quality schooling – exist for all girls, everywhere.
Let’s be realistic. This change won’t be easy. There is still backlash against efforts to end child marriage – our members face it every day. The history of social movements shows us that progress is not linear, and that we will continue to face setbacks.
That’s where the global movement is so critical. It helps us all build the resilience and energy that are critical in the face of challenges. So that, even if there is backsliding in my country, I can continue to draw inspiration from the progress of my brothers and sisters in a neighbouring country.
I’m continuously blown away by the girls and other activists I see who, with the tiniest amount of support or encouragement, are able to create huge changes in their communities. Just imagine how we could change the world if these girls had all the support they needed?
What is your hope for Girls Not Brides in the future?
By 2030, I want to see us well on the way to ending child marriage everywhere.
My dream is a world where girls and their communities demand a different future.
A world where governments compete with one another to see who can best respond to the needs of the girls they serve. A world where we recognise that child marriage went from a taboo subject to one where there’s sustained action by a whole range of actors, from girls and boys to donors to religious leaders and UN agencies. A world where our partnership is seen as a model of how to successfully tackle a complex global social issue collectively.
It’s an audacious dream, I know. But having seen first-hand the power of the girls, organisations, activists who are committed to the movement to end child marriage, I have no doubt that this is the group to make this dream come true and create a happier, healthier and more equal world for girls everywhere.
In the time it has taken to read this article 64 girls under the age of 18 have been married
Each year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18
That is 23 girls every minute
Nearly 1 every 3 seconds