Girls Just Want to be Girls

You might think a nine year old girl is too young to be married, but in some parts of the world, this is the common age of betrothal. The odds are that for ten million of the world's adolescent and teenage girls one in three girls marry before age 18 and one in seven marry before age 15 -- even as astonishingly young as age nine. "Girls Not Brides," a joint effort to end child marriage, was announced yesterday at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) under the direction of Desmond Tutu and Mary Robinson of "The Elders," Luis Ubiñas of the Ford Foundation and Jennifer Buffett of NoVo Foundation.

Mary Robinson, the first female President of Ireland and former High Commissioner of Human Rights at the United Nations, spoke passionately at the CGI about "the human rights and squandered potential of hundreds of millions of girls and the women they become." Robinson revealed that her life-long commitment to championing the rights of girls began growing up as the daughter of two doctors in County Mayo, Ireland. Her father assisting in childbirths for poor Irish women expressed frustration that the inevitable first question following delivery was: "Is it a boy? Or is it a child?" Robinson explained, "That is part of the problem. The girl has a sense that she is less important. That is what we have to combat."

That girls and women are still viewed as worth "less" than males in so many parts of the world is one of humanity's greatest tragedies. Thousands of years of oppression, violence and neglect continue to marginalize women lives all over the globe. Robinson and Buffet point out the tremendous loss of resources by disenfranchising the female population. The issues are not just about human rights; this is a quality of life issue for the planet. Women are natural nurturers. The world desperately needs TLC! Women are also problem solvers and their talents are being wasted. Girls' rights champion Jennifer Buffet stated that adolescent girls are "the most powerful force for change in the world. When girls are valued, treated as full human beings, and supported to their full human potential, family, communities and the entire world benefit." Her philanthropic organization NoVo Foundation is putting millions of dollars to work towards unleashing girl power in society.

Ford Foundation President Luis Ubiñas called the devastating problem of child marriage "unacceptable" and vowed to put his Foundation's resources behind ending the monstrous practice in one generation. He stated, "You can't imagine what these girls go through to escape these marriages. I have seen it." Ubiñas has joined forces with The Elders, NoVo and Nike Foundation to seed the "Girls Not Brides" initiative with a $300 million investment. He noted the issue is economic in origin. "It's about poverty... about not getting that fifth bowl of rice." The Ford leader spoke of the devastating poverty in parts of the developing world that forces families to marry their young daughters off in order to feed them. To understand that these girls are living lives as child slaves because they are hungry is astonishing. It also reveals there is an obvious solution. Relieve the poverty and hunger in the community and the chain of generations of female servitude can be broken.

World spiritual leader, Desmond Tutu spoke eloquently at CGI of the moral dilemma behind child marriage. "Men must take a vow not to marry children." Reverend Tutu remarked that the problem involved breaking with the tradition of girl marriage. The task is to show the community that their own development is being hampered. "This is something for all of us -- not just for those children. Ultimately it helps the community." The world peacemaker noted that as human beings we are deeply affected by our collective actions. "We belong to each other," he said. "We go down or up together too."

The issue of child marriage and the work of "Girls Not Brides" highlight the challenges ahead for gender advancement. Not only are these children cut off from educational and economic opportunities, their capture as "brides" at such tender ages interferes with their sense of self as vital empowered individuals. Girls have to believe that they have something to offer the world in order to fulfill that promise.

The work of the initiative is already paying off. Reverend Tutu spoke of a successful project in Ethiopia that has affected genuine cultural change. A young woman trapped in an abusive arranged marriage recalled that for years her spouse never called her by name and forced her to work from dawn to dusk. After the initiative by Tutu, Robinson and the Elders, the girl-woman said, "Now he calls me by name and we share the household chores." Creating the space for girls to be treated with dignity and valued for their enormous contribution to society is the first step to affecting real and positive change toward global gender equality.

Monika Mitchell is the CEO of Good Business International, Inc. (Good-b) in New York, a new media company dedicated to celerating the movement for better business for a better world. She is also a founding member of the NGO Working Group "Values & Business" at the United Nations and a long-standing advocate for the economic advancement of women and girls.