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“There is a sense that the girl child is inferior.” Mary Robinson on why The Elders chose to address child marriage

Mary Robinson with participants in the Jagriti project. Photo credit: Tom Pietrasik|The Elders

In an interview with CBC Radio Canada, Mary Robinson explains The Elders‘ commitment to the issue of child marriage and their work to bring Girls Not Brides together. This is an abridged transcript of the interview given by Mary Robinson to Michael Enright for the CBC radio programme Sunday Edition, broadcast on 6 May 2012. Click here to listen to the full interview.

Michael Enright: Joining me to talk about child marriage is Mary Robinson, she is the former President of Ireland and the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. She is also a founding member of a group called The Elders.

This issue of childhood marriage, why did you get involved with it?

Mary Robinson: It grew out of a long discussion the Elders had about promoting equality of women and girls. Graça Machel was passionate that the Elders needed to highlight the importance of taking so many women out of a second class position in their society.

As we looked at it we saw that religion and tradition can often be distorted to subjugate women and girls, to make them feel second class, to exclude them from roles in society. We’re not in any way against religion itself – we value religion and the values of religion – but it can be used to subjugate and hold back women and girls.

When you did get involved and you came upon these stories, were you shocked? Or was it something you expected?

Mary Robinson with participants in the Jagriti
project, run by Pathfinder in Bihar, India.

I knew there was a problem of child marriage, but I didn’t know the scale of it. The fact that an estimated 10 million girls aged under 18 are married worldwide, most of them without knowing in advance the husband they are going to be married to. That’s more than 25,000 girls every day.

It was all brought home to me when the Elders visited Bihar in India, a state with a high prevalence of child marriage. I was talking to a young girl who was 16 and had been married for a year. I asked her to tell me about her wedding day. She just looked at me with sad eyes and said: “I had to drop out of school.”

Is it a practice that is limited to a particular social or economic class?

It tends to cross social boundaries. There is a sense that the girl is inferior.

I remember well growing up in the West of Ireland. Both of my parents were doctors. My father was a beloved country doctor. I often heard him say in frustration to my mother when he came back from a delivery of a child in a poor home: “I heard that question again: Doctor, is it a boy or a child?” Ireland at that time was a paternal, religious society. Girls and women knew their place, and that creates a sense of women and girls being less important.

When parents marry off a child how can they afford to pay a dowry?

Well, we learned something that was sad and disheartening: that the older the girl, the longer she stays in education, then the dowry is bigger. There’s an economic incentive to marry the girl younger because you don’t have to pay so much dowry.

Even though there are laws on the books, it’s not a matter of enforcement so much as changing an entire culture, an entire way of thinking.

When we were in Ethiopia, we went to two different villages which were showing what can be done. Like in India, Ethiopia has a good law which says you shouldn’t marry below the age of 18. But in the Amhara region the average age was around 11 or 12. We met 7 and 8 and 9 year old girls who’d been married, and 13 year olds who had had children, much too young for their bodies and for their whole emotional development.

But these two villages had very good projects. We Elders sat and listened to the imams in the village giving religious leadership; the fathers, the elders, the mothers, all saying we have to keep the girls in school: !It’s better for our local economy, the girls are more productive, they can do more. We’ve got to stop this practice.” That’s really the only way to change: from within.

What about on the other side? What if the man refuses and says: “I don’t want to marry the girl”?

That of course is to be encouraged and we did see in the school in Bihar, boys being encouraged to understand that the girls they were in school with should not be marrying young.

What The Elders have done is we’ve understood that there are very good organisations working in different regions of the world. We’ve been able to create a global partnership, which has a lovely title: “Girls Not Brides

What is the reaction of the community to you or governments when you embark on a campaign like this? Are they supportive or critical?

I must say that in both places that we’ve gone to, both governments have been supportive. In Ethiopia, the Minister of Health and other government officials encouraged us – they want the law to be applied.

It was the same thing in India. You know India – and I say this as a supporter – is a proud and sometimes prickly country when you come from the outside. We were very encouraged by how much our visit was welcomed – in Delhi by ministers, at governor level in the state of Bihar and at the local level.

The Elders argue that ending child marriage is a necessary step towards development. How so?

We emphasise the gains to the community and indeed to the country if girls stay in school and develop their own potential through education. They will be better mothers; they will get better jobs; they will be more inclined to ensure that their daughters don’t get involved in early child marriage; they will be much better at ensuring there is good food and nutrition for the family; they will space their babies.

Is there a concern that should these young women stay in school and indeed become activists in this cause, that they might be putting themselves in harm’s way?

Well, that is one of the problems. There are a number of projects, however, that are addressing this very effectively. For example, projects that ensure that girls in school get bicycles so they can cycle to school in groups. A number of schools now have dormitory facilities for girls so that they can stay safely in school.

So these are issues to be tackled, but none of them take away from the importance of girls’ education as being key to development, not only for that family but for the whole community and ultimately for the country.

I imagine it’s critical to get religious leadership onside on the issue. Do they support your work or do they try and block it?

It was significant in the two villages in Ethiopia we visited: the imams were part of the solution; they were helping to change attitudes. If they’re not supportive, it’s much harder for the individual girls or for the individual families to break from the norm, even if it’s a bad norm like child marriage.

What can I do about child marriage from sitting here in North America?

I have seen the incredible enthusiasm of all the organisations already working on child marriage for a long number of years, in isolated communities and countries and regions, being so enthusiastic about this global partnership, Girls Not Brides.

There’s a willingness at different levels to address this issue and I believe that it is one that we can change within a generation, because if girls themselves stay in school their daughters will not be married off at 9, 10, 11.

It’s a question of changing behaviour, and we can tackle it at different levels. And The Elders are totally committed to it. In fact, Archbishop Tutu put it extremely strongly when he said: “I feel as strongly about addressing child marriage as I felt about apartheid”. When he looks at you and says that, it’s very powerful.