In India, nearly half of all girls are married before they turn the legal age of 18. In the state of Bihar, the statistics are even grimmer: 69% of girls are wedded before they’re 18 and 48% before they turn 15. Archbishop Desmond Tutu and a group of global leaders known as the Elders are trying to change this. Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize winner for his role in helping end apartheid in South Africa, led a delegation to Bihar last week to try to understand the causes of child marriages and to meet with organizations working to bring an end to the practice. Tutu spoke with TIME’s Nilanjana Bhowmick about the problem of child marriages in India and what the country needs to do to stop them.
Why are you working to raise awareness of child marriages in India?
We have been concerned about discrimination against women and girls, which is a universal phenomenon. We found that one of the best ways in which we can really expand on our concern about prejudice against women would be to address this issue of child marriage. Ten million girls a year, a hundred million in a decade — that’s a huge number of human beings!
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Why is this such a big problem?
Women form 50% of the population, and if we do not engage and provide proper training for them, it’s going to have an impact. Child marriage also affects six out of the eight [U.N.] Millennium Development Goals. There is no hope of attaining them if we do not do something drastic to end child marriage.
How is child marriage linked to other problems in India, like poverty?
India has become aware in the fact that they have now legislation [against child marriage] in place, and therefore all it needs to do is to ensure that the laws are obeyed, and then it would go a very long way. There are schemes [in the country] about encouraging girls to remain in school and such schemes will in fact tackle very many problems. It will begin to make an impression on poverty because a girl who is well educated will have more earning power. Empowering girls would also mean there will be a reduction in infant mortality, the statistics for which are horrendous at present. Children born to young girls, under 18, are 68% likely to die before they turn 1. Then there is a question of maternal mortality. Girls who marry around 15 are more likely to die at childbirth. So you are affecting quite a few of the indicators by taking care of just one problem.
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The efforts in India toward ending child marriage are quite piecemeal. Can the Elders help make these efforts stronger and more comprehensive?
You are right. One of the things we did during our visit was to meet people that we are calling champions and who are going to help us in the attainment of our goals [in India]. We met with seven very prominent individuals who are going to help push these things. However, you can’t also say it is all piecemeal and hence a disadvantage because it has got to start somewhere, and I think as people see the benefits of delaying marriage in other parts of the country, they will want the same, and the movement is going to be quite overwhelming. You have got to start somewhere.
Much like apartheid in South Africa, child marriage is a social problem in India. How do you change people’s mind-sets and get them to value girls?
You have to do several things. You are going to have to expose people to instances where girls have been educated and you have got very many role models in India. You have the first woman Speaker [in Parliament], you have got the leader of the opposition and you have chief ministers who are women. One of the most common features of all these women is that they are educated, but has it reduced their worth? No, their worth has been enhanced. Yes, it may take time, but my sense is that there is a momentum, and you will be surprised that within less than a generation, people will say, ‘What is that: child marriage? Did it really happen?’ It’s going to end. People said the same thing about apartheid — that it’s not going to end — but well, look at where we are now.
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What will it take for India to put an end to it, then?
If there is a concerted effort, if religious, political, business leaders and village community leaders decide that this is something that is detrimental to our country, it will change. India has been boasting a GDP growth rate around 9%, which is phenomenal. Just imagine the consequences if you release this immense force constituting 50% of the population.
Can India become a world leader in ending child marriages?
I am quite certain it will. India is an emerging economy, and it is the largest democracy in the world. It’s already making waves. People are aware of India’s position and South Africa got great help from India in ending apartheid. India could become a leader in ending child marriages. I believe it is possible and would want to encourage India to achieve that.
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