As she transitions from her role as Board Chair of Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage to become our Global Champion, we sat down with Mabel van Oranje to hear what she has learned during her decade as Chair, how the Partnership inspires her and where we need go from here.
As our founder, Board Chair and our most visible champion, you have done more to put child marriage on the map than almost anyone else. What is your proudest accomplishment?
I am most proud of how far we have come in just over ten years. When I was CEO of The Elders and we decided in 2010 to commit to ending child marriage, the issue was getting very little attention. It was rarely mentioned in the corridors of power at the United Nations, or in key development debates. Can you believe it?! The lack of focus on child marriage was way out of balance with the sheer scale of the issue. Many millions of girls were being married every year and the impact on their lives – from maternal mortality to gender-based violence – was catastrophic. Yet these girls were being ignored, their plight was invisible. As Graça Machel said at that time: “These girls are a silent part of our society”.
Now, through the hard work of the worldwide movement that we seeded and nourished, ending child marriage is very much on the global agenda. Governments and leaders have made commitments on every level, from the Sustainable Development Goals to national action plans. Funding for programmes has increased significantly, and attitudes and norms are shifting. We have learned so much more about what works to end child marriage. Over ten years we have gone from basically ignoring the issue to making the world pay attention and focus on ending it. By working together at all levels, from rural communities all the way to the UN, the end child marriage movement has shown that change is possible, and change is happening. I am so proud and humbled to have contributed to that change.
What has given you the most hope?
I am excited about the progress we have made in just a decade. It cannot be taken away or set aside: the girls who have avoided marrying early because of our collective work, the communities that have stood up to end this practice, the attitudes about the value of girls that have changed – none of this can be undone. I am sure that there will be many bumps in the road ahead. But our strong, sustainable global Partnership will make sure that we keep moving forward and reducing the number of girls married every year.
What makes Girls Not Brides so special?
For me, it is all about the our member organisations. They are the heart of our Partnership. They are the ones that are making the difference, who are doing the hard work on the ground. They are the ones from whom I have learned almost everything I know about ending child marriage. It’s their energy and commitment that continue to keep me inspired.
Our Partnership model might seem obvious: organisations, big and small, from all over the world, coming together around a shared goal. Collaborating with little bureaucracy and a big focus on impact. Recognising that child marriage happens for different reasons in different places – and needs local expertise to address it. Pursuing a bottom-up approach, where every member can make their unique contribution to change. Having a secretariat to serve the members, by creating spaces and tools for the members to lead. You might think that all this is normal, but looking at other collaborative efforts, I can assure you that you can’t take these things for granted. In many ways I think that our model was ahead of its time.
The group of 60 or so activists who came together in Addis Ababa in June 2011 and decided on the creation of our Partnership also defined some of its core values, like collaboration, grassroots-led, diversity, focus on girls’ lives. In the end, I believe that it is those values and our model which continue to make us powerful and able to deliver real progress.
If you could give the end child marriage movement one piece of advice, what would it be?
Only one piece of advice? Focus! Focus on the goal: ending child marriage. It is a measurable and specific target that will have a domino effect across girls’ lives, families and communities. As The Elders put it: when child marriage rates go down, you will see many other good things happen in the lives of girls – in terms of education, health and violence.
In the end, I am only interested in one number: zero. Zero girls being taken out of school to become brides. Zero girls having babies while they themselves are still children. Zero child marriage. To reach this number we need to keep a laser focus on that goal and accelerate our work towards it. Because if we don’t work to end child marriage, who will?
How do you feel about the transition you are making?
I am sad that I am not able to share this moment with our members in person.
I have so many precious memories of trips and meetings where I got to spend quality time with the members, to learn from them and to work with them. And I have made so many beautiful friendships. Being surrounded by over 500 members at our last Global Meeting in Kuala Lumpur in 2018 was incredible – the power of connection and the sense of the magic that happens when you all work together towards the same ambitious goal.
Hopefully, once pandemic-related travel restrictions make it possible, we will be able to meet face-to-face again and discuss how, in my new role as Global Champion, I can best continue to help them advance their work.
What is next for you?
I am an activist, a pragmatic optimist. For me, ending child marriage is a calling, not a career. The transition from Girls Not Brides Board Chair to Global Champion involves a change of title, and it practically means that I will be spending less time on the day-to-day affairs of the Girls Not Brides secretariat. But I will always remain committed to our cause: a world where every girl can decide whether, when and whom to marry.
And in the coming months, I plan to take some time to reflect on the last decade and explore what we can learn from the movement’s successes so far. So don’t be surprised if I call some of you to exchange views on how we can accelerate progress in creating a world where, in the words of Archbishop Tutu, “girls can be girls, not brides”.
In the time it has taken to read this article 69 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 2 seconds