Which issue drives Nobel Peace Laureates, former presidents and prime ministers, and revolutionary women’s rights advocates to unite around a common cause?
The answer: child marriage.
The Elders are a 10-member group, with one honorary member (Founder Nelson Mandela), that uses its collective influence to promote neglected issues, call attention to injustices, and make a real impact. This group of global leaders has dedicated itself to ending the practice of child marriage as part of a commitment to realize peace and protect human rights.
Former South African President Nelson Mandela founded The Elders in 2007, with instrumental support from Desmond Tutu, the archbishop emeritus of Cape Town, and Graça Machel, the first education minister of Mozambique and international advocate for women’s and children’s rights.
Since its founding, the Elders have grown to include other well-respected ambassadors, such as former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan; former U.S. President Jimmy Carter; and Ela Bhatt, a pioneer for Indian and international women’s empowerment.
The Elders have chosen to focus on child marriage primarily because of the magnitude of the problem and the still limited attention it receives.
Just last year, the group founded Girls Not Brides: A Global Partnership to End Child Marriage, a consortium of nearly 200 nongovernmental organizations focused on ending the harmful practice and helping those girls who are already married.
Child marriage—generally defined as the marriage of girls before their 18th birthdays—affects an estimated 14.2 million girls each year. By way of comparison, the annual number of new HIV infections was 2.2 million in 2009. Despite its prevalence, child marriage and its devastating impact on girls (as young as 5 or 6 years old) have not been featured prominently on the development agenda.
After visiting Nelson Mandela at his village home in Qunu in August, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton highlighted this issue:
“I want to say a brief word about an issue that doesn’t get nearly enough attention in the world, and that’s child marriage. This is an issue that the Elders have taken on. And it’s good that they have, because an estimated one in three girls in the developing world is married before the age of 18. That means they are less likely to get an education, more likely to encounter life-threatening health problems, which shortchanges and shortcuts them and sometimes their lives, and robs their communities and their countries of their skills and talents.”
Secretary Clinton went on to publicly affirm not only the United States’ foreign policy position on child marriage, but also her personal commitment toward supporting ongoing efforts to end the practice:
“The United States will intensify our diplomacy and development work to end child marriage, and it’s a personal commitment of mine as well as a great value that South Africa, the United States, and so many people around the world share.”
This high-level commitment from Secretary Clinton is an example – a result – of The Elders’ strategic (and sometimes private) efforts. As Tutu and Machel outlined in their op-ed featured in the Washington Post in July, “momentum for change is building.”
And indeed it was: earlier this month on October 10th—one day before the first International Day of the Girl Child— Archbishop Desmond Tutu joined Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in announcing more than $100 million in publicly and privately funded programs aimed at ending child marriage worldwide.
Now for those of us who do not have the same access to decision-makers—those of us who are not international advocates, recipients of Nobel Peace Laureates or former presidents—what can we do?
Elder Kofi Annan has an opinion: “I am often asked what can people do to become a good global citizen? I reply that it begins in your own community.”
Only two weeks ago, on October 11, we celebrated the first International Day of the Girl Child, so we have a timely opportunity to heed Annan’s call; we can raise awareness within our social networks about child marriage and encourage our friends and family to do the same.
We can build upon The Elders’ initial meeting with Secretary Clinton and the renewed global commitment to end child marriage by engaging ourselves and our “online communities,” spreading the word about the issue and introducing friends and family to the Too Young to Wed initiative via Facebook and Twitter (@2young2wed). Go to TooYoungToWed.org and click on “Take Action” on the right side of the page to join our ongoing campaign to empower girls and end child marriage.