NEW YORK, NY — It is her wedding day, but there is no joy on Surita’s face.
Instead, the 16-year-old bride sits slumped against the wall of her new home, clearly miserable, as her teenage groom accepts gifts from well-wishers.
It’s one of 34 images of child brides in the Too Young to Wed exhibit unveiled at the United Nations Thursday to mark the first International Day of the Girl Child.
And it caught Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s attention.
“Have you looked at the bride?” he asked a crowd gathered for the exhibit’s opening. “That’s her wedding day. Have you seen what she looks like? That’s an image that should haunt all of us.”
The reception capped a day devoted to examining the plight of girls and women around the world, in particular the harmful practice of child marriage. The UN Population Fund (UNFPA), which partnered with premier photo agency VII to produce Too Young to Wed, had released startling statistics earlier in the day showing that 142 million girls were in danger of being married as children over the next decade.
That’s roughly 39,000 girls each day—or 27 girls every minute—some as young as 6, who face shortened educations, early pregnancies and increased risk of death or injury due to childbirth and domestic violence.
Tutu is chairman of The Elders, a panel of world leaders that founded Girls Not Brides: A Global Partnership to End Child Marriage. During the evening reception and a panel discussion earlier in the day, he insisted that child marriage could, and should, be history by 2030.
“We’ve changed things like feet-binding. We’ve changed things like slavery. We’ve changed things like apartheid. We’ve changed things where women were not expected to be presidents of countries or prime ministers,” he said. “We’ve changed that. We can—we will—change this one.”
In addition to Tutu, the afternoon panel, which was moderated by NBC News correspondent Ann Curry, included a number of high-level experts on the topic of child marriage: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon; UNFPA Executive Director Babatunde Osotimehin; Geeta Rao Gupta, deputy executive director of UNICEF; Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury, the state minister for Women and Children Affairs in Bangladesh; Michelle Bachelet, executive director of UN Women; and Ghaicha Salamatou Agali, a youth activist in Niger.
During the panel, Tutu compared the disenfranchisement of women and girls to South Africa’s globally condemned policy of racial discrimination under apartheid.
“What has happened to us that we can dismiss 50 percent of the human population and say they’re less than human?” he asked. “There must be something wrong with us. It’s quite unconscionable.”
He pointed out that six of the eight Millennium Development Goals adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2000—eradicating poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality and empowering women, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, and stemming the spread of HIV/AIDS and other diseases—are unreachable without first addressing the problem of child marriage and the gender disparities that accompany the practice.
Ironically, many countries with a high prevalence of child marriage actually have laws on the books forbidding the practice. For instance, said Chaudhury, the minimum marriage age for boys in Bangladesh is 21 while for girls it’s 18. Even though violators face fines and prison time, Bangladesh has one of the highest child marriage rates in the world, with 66 percent of women between the ages of 20 and 24 reporting that they were married before they turned 18.
“As we all know, legislation is not enough,” said Chaudhury. “Policies must be translated into action.”
Only the day before the panel, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) would sponsor a pilot program in Bangladesh, working with religious leaders, media, local governments and NGOs to foster community support for an end to child marriage.
One of the greatest difficulties in combating child marriage is quantifying the problem to begin with, members of the panel said. In some places, statistics are hard to come by, in part because not every birth is registered, making it difficult to verify a bride’s age.
Where statistics are lacking, UNICEF has encouraged young people to talk about the issue via social media, providing anecdotal information that can serve as a starting point for policy discussions until enough data is gathered, said Gupta.
National governments must do a better job of tracking the problem as well as enforcing their own laws and financially supporting efforts to eradicate the practice, said Osotimehin. That means providing universal access to a safe education, shown to be the No. 1 factor in delaying marriage for girls.
Young people also need easy access to sexual and reproductive health information, so they can make informed choices about when to marry and start families, he said.
Financial incentives for parents who agree to keep their girls in school longer have reduced child marriage in places like Malawi and India, said Gupta. But the more sustainable solutions involve changes at the cultural level.
“It requires elders to speak up and say, ‘This is an outrage,’ ” she said. “That changes the social norms.”
Bachelet urged activists to engage men and boys in those discussions since, so often, they enforce community traditions. She also said the UN’s resolutions denouncing child marriage need to be followed up with action.
“We have many resolutions, but many times, nothing happens afterwards,” she said. “We need to walk the talk.”
Returning to Tutu’s mention of apartheid, Curry asked the panel whether the international community ought to similarly declare child marriage a “moral outrage” and be a little less diplomatic in dealing with countries where the practice thrives.
“This thing is in fact not just a moral outrage. It is a crime in terms of the statutes of most of these countries,” responded Tutu. “You’ve got the laws. Use them. This thing is subhuman. Get rid of it.”
Later that evening, hundreds of invited guests visited the Too Young to Wed exhibit, composed of photographs by VII photographer Stephanie Sinclair, who has documented child marriage for nearly decade, and videos by fellow VII member Jessica Dimmock.
Both women addressed the audience, urging them to support programs that stop child marriage and help those girls who are already married.
The UN secretary-general, clearly moved by the exhibit, asked the crowd not to forget the sacrifices of activists like 14-year-old Malala Yousufzai, a Pakistani girl who was shot last Tuesday by the Taliban for insisting on girls’ rights to education, and Malalai Kakar, an Iraqi policewoman featured in one of Sinclair’s images who was murdered by the Taliban after defending the rights of women.
“Let this be a call to action,” Ki-moon said of the event. “Let us end child marriage in this generation.”