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We must listen and learn, not lecture

As she welcomes her fellow Elders to India ahead of the Girls Not Brides South Asia meeting, Ela Bhatt writes that if we are to address child marriage, we must be sympathetic to the difficult decisions families are forced to make.

I am very happy to be welcoming my friends Desmond Tutu, Gro Brundtland and Mary Robinson to India. This is the first time the Elders have travelled here as a group, and I hope that by the end of our visit to Delhi and Bihar, we will have become even “wiser”. Our aim is to listen and learn, not lecture. I also hope this is the beginning of a continued relationship with the people and leaders of India.

As some of you may already know, the Elders work together as independent global leaders, supporting peace-building and human rights. These issues are closely related in my view. Peace, human rights and human development go hand in hand, and the Millennium Development Goals – the international benchmarks for progress on poverty, health, education and other issues – are a very important tool. I strongly believe that peace is not a political issue, it’s a human one, and will only be achieved when everyone has the freedom to grow at their own pace and to fulfil their potential.

In India, the focus of our visit is to support Indian girls in particular to realise their full potential by drawing attention to the practice of child marriage. In this way, we hope we will also contribute towards India’s own development as a peaceful partner in the global family of nations.

In the developing world an estimated one in three girls is married before the age of 18. One in seven marries before 15. Around ten million girls a year are affected by child marriage and one third of them live in India. Child marriage is, however, a truly global practice. It occurs across all major religions and regions, from West and East Africa to South Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and communities in Europe and the United States.

Marrying later, delaying pregnancy and continuing girls’ education, providing them adequate skills and financial literacy, are all important ways to support development and build a more peaceful world.

Ela Bhatt

There are many reasons why child marriage happens, but we now recognise that marrying later, delaying pregnancy and continuing girls’ education, providing them adequate skills and financial literacy, are all important ways to support development and build a more peaceful world.

As I mentioned, the Elders are not here to lecture or prescribe. Nevertheless as home to a significant proportion of the world’s child brides, addressing this issue in India is very important on the global scale. What we hope to do is to listen to girls affected by child marriage, their parents, their teachers and community leaders – and amplify their needs and concerns in our conversations with government, media and other influential people.

I am very sympathetic to the difficult decisions that families must make here in India. Even if they want their daughters to be educated, there are often no schools nearby, especially outside the big towns and cities. Physical security is a real concern if girls have to travel long distances or stay in dormitories away from home.

In India, family and community are also central to most people’s security – both physical and financial. Marriages are not just between individuals, but weave together families and communities in mutually supportive networks. This makes marriage complex, and important to social cohesion.

Like everywhere in India, we are seeing change. I have seen differences in age of marriage from my mother’s generation to my own, and my daughters’. But it is far too slow.

We hope that the Elders’ contribution will help to create an enabling environment where everyone works together – government, young people, media, NGOs, and businesses too – so that girls can become equal members of the family, not second class members, and can truly fulfil their potential.

This article was originally published at The Elders