“My passion (that) now I hope to translate, transfer to this, is the same passion, commitment that I had when I was fighting, we were fighting, against apartheid,” Tutu told a conference in New York, where activists spoke out against the estimated 10 million marriages of underage girls around the world each year.
Tutu, a Nobel peace prize laureate and hero of the struggle to end white minority rule in his native South Africa, said he came late to the realization of how common child marriage is and how much damage it causes.
“For a very, very long time I didn’t know,” he told a panel at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting in New York. “I thought it was something that happens only in India.”
The reality, Tutu said, left him “devastated.”
“The statistics are shattering. If we do nothing about it, 10 million girl children under the age of 18 will have been married this year. You think: in a decade that’s 100 million.”
Once an underage girl is forced into the role of wife and child bearer, she will drop out of education, be unable to work, and likely opt out of programs to improve health, causing wider impact across society, according to Tutu.
“We can just as well forget doing anything about eradicating poverty or hunger. We can forget about universal primary education,” he said.
“We can forget about gender equality. We can forget about maternal health. We can forget about doing anything significant about HIV/AIDS.”
Tutu said that when a girl becomes a mother under the age of 15, she is five times more likely to die in childbirth than a mother of 19 or 20.
Niger is believed to lead the world in child marriage, which is also common in central and western Africa, parts of Asia and in the Middle East, with motives ranging from economic arrangements to tribal traditions.
Tutu, who turns 80 next month, was in New York launching the Girls Not Brides campaign, headed by a group of prominent humanitarian activists called The Elders.
According to Girls Not Brides, more than 25,000 girls are married every day around the world, or 19 every minute, nearly all of them in poor countries.
Almost half of child brides live in south Asia, with child marriage rates of 66 percent in Bangladesh, 39 percent in Afghanistan and 47 percent in India.
In Niger, the rate is a huge 75 percent, followed by 72 percent in Chad and 71 percent in Mali.
In a typical illustration of the strong position held by child marriage in many societies, Malaysia’s government refused to intervene in a row last December over the union of a 14-year-old girl and a 23-year-old school teacher.
Some 16,000 Malaysian girls aged below 15 are married, according to activists fighting the custom. However, the government argued that it is legal under Islamic law.
Mary Robinson, a former Irish president and UN high commissioner for human rights who is also in The Elders group, says tradition does not justify the practice and that “momentum is building” for change.
“For too long, we have all shied away from talking about child marriage,” Robinson wrote on The Elders’ website.
“Some might be reluctant to interfere in what is seen as a family matter, others avoid the issue because it involves questioning cultural and traditional practices. We understand these sensitivities, but we don’t believe that’s an excuse.”