JOHANNESBURG, Nov 6 – Coercing girls under age 18 into marriage is as repugnant as apartheid and should be battled with the same vigour, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and anti-apartheid icon Archbishop Desmond Tutu said Tuesday.
“This is an issue I liken to apartheid in South Africa, that I would want to bring to it the same passion, the same commitment that I had in our struggle against apartheid,” he told AFP.
“Apartheid sought to quite deliberately hamstring a whole community, and this practice does the same thing. It is in fact hamstringing whole communities, preventing them from developing as they could have developed if girl children were given the opportunity of staying longer in school.”
An estimated 10 million children are married off each year worldwide. Niger, in west Africa, has the highest prevalence with three-quarters of girls forced into marriage before 18 years of age, according to statistics by global health agencies.
“I look at my grandchildren and I say, had they been born elsewhere, these children would have been brides, and that really shook me,” Tutu earlier told a meeting of activists battling child marriage.
Tutu said that if the practice was not brought to an end soon, the world can forget about achieving the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) aimed at slashing poverty and hunger, and boosting access to health care and education for all, by 2015.
“Just in terms of maternal health, you already have huge problems, and we found that six of the eight MDGs we can just give up on, there’s no hope.”
The rate at which children are being given away to marriage has been on the rise, and conflicts and droughts ravaging parts of the continent have worsened the situation.
Human rights campaigner Graca Machel, Nelson Mandela’s wife, told the meeting organised by the UK-based global charity Girls Not Brides: “No one has the right to determine what is the life of another human being — even when you are a parent, even if you are a caregiver.”