Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the South African anti-apartheid activist, Nobel Peace Prize winner and chair of the Elders, a group of independent global leaders working for human rights, was in Washington on Wednesday to promote his latest campaign: ending child marriage in the developing world. In 2011, the Elders created Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage, which now has 200 members in 38 countries.
Tutu, 81, met with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on the eve of the inaugural International Day of the Girl Child at the United Nations. Clinton announced new government and private initiatives to prevent child marriage and promote the education of girls, including mandatory reporting of the minimum legal age for marriage and the rate of child marriage in the State Department's annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.
Tutu met with The Washington Post at the Mayflower Hotel before leaving for New York. He started the interview with a prayer from the Book of Psalms.
Q: Tell us a little about the campaign and the economic and social forces that have made child marriage a tradition for so long.
A: We are really pushing this campaign for ending child marriage by 2030. It's prevalent all over what you might call the developing world. It's in virtually every African country.
I was actually surprised. I used to think it was something that happened only in Asia. My eyes were opened by the fact that the highest incidence is actually in Africa.
It is a tradition where the family recognizes that they will benefit economically from dowries and things of that kind, and also having one less mouth to feed. They also think they are concerned for the girl's virtue, that she might end up maybe being raped. It's economic, too. For a new family [that the woman is married into], you have one extra pair of hands.
But it is a very debilitating practice. The girl child is not physically, let alone emotionally, ready to bear a child. The statistics are that girls who give birth when they are under 15 are five times more likely to die giving birth than girls of 19 and over. And their children are 60 times more likely to die before their first birthday.
Q: Do the girls themselves ever see any benefit to being married off so young?
A: There would be very, very few who are likely to say, "I want to do this." I think that almost 99.99 percent think no. When we were in Ethiopia, Mary Robinson [Ireland's first female president and a former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights] asked one of these child brides, "What do you remember about your wedding day?" And this child looked, I mean, on the point of just breaking down. And she said, "It was the day that I left school."
Now can you imagine remembering what ought to be the happiest day or your life in that negative way? "I never went back to school."
Q: Do you see child marriage as an entry point to fighting other problems in the developing world?
A: If we want to make any headway with the [Millennium] development goals [adopted by the United Nations in 2000], this is a key issue. All in all, it means that if we don't end this practice, this custom, six of the current [goals] will be out of the question. Extreme poverty and hunger, universal primary education, improving the health of women, reducing the incidence of HIV and AIDS. That's because the husband is much older than his bride and is likely to have had several partners.
Q: What has been position of most governments on child marriage in these countries?
A: Almost all of the countries now prohibit marriage before the age of 18. But as you know, you can have a law on the statute book and life on the ground is totally different.
But it is important to say to people that this is something that can, in fact, be ended, when you have a coalition of the right kind of forces. We've seen it happening in Ethiopia. The religious leaders, the traditional leaders, have set up schemes where they discuss this with young people, and the results have been very, very promising. In a very tradition- bound part of Ethiopia, change is actually happening.
We were also in one of the poorest states in India, Bihar, and it was heartwarming to find that young people have organized a petition against child marriage. And in many of their villages, they are finding allies. The government provided bicycles for girls so they can ride to school. And school uniforms. Generally they've made it more attractive to remain in school than not to do so.
Q: With the United Nations and increasing resources behind you, what is the approach to trying to reverse the practice of child marriage?
A: We [have] just come away from a meeting at the State Department. There's a government aid commitment, and there are also some corporations. The Ford Foundation is committing $25 million over five years, for example. The U.N. Population Fund has put in $20 million. MacArthur [Foundation] found $10 million. These are wonderful commitments. We left that particular meeting with our hearts singing.
It's not just throwing money at the problem. For example, the State Department is targeting education, to help girl children remain longer in school. It is not Westerners coming along and pontificating. They want to work with the communities on the ground and be very respectful of traditions and not come off as the superior know-it-alls.
They are intending to have coalitions with people who know the communities. Organizations do not come along and say, "We know how to do it."
The idea is to ensure that the standards are respectful of the customs and traditions of the community. It isn't anything that is being imposed from the top down.
Q: You have many women in your family. Were they an inspiration to you to focus on this issue?
A: We have three daughters and seven grandchildren, of whom four are girls. Our daughters — one is a priest, our youngest. The eldest has a master's in public health, she works with AIDS and HIV. The other taught in a university. Now she's going back to school to do theology.
They all went to university. We are fortunate. We want the same for others. Where they have the ability, for goodness' sake, the sky should be the limit for young women. They should reach for the stars!