Scores of South Asian charities struggling to curb high child-marriage rates are backing a global movement spearheaded by South African peace icon Archbishop Desmond Tutu to end the practice affecting millions of girls and women worldwide.
Representatives from charities in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka gathered in New Delhi last week at the regional launch of the "Girls Not Brides" alliance – created by Tutu, 80, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for speaking out against white minority rule in South Africa.
Now, as chairman of The Elders – a group of prominent people that include former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, former Irish President Mary Robinson and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter dedicated to addressing human rights – Tutu is trying to persuade governments and local communities to take child marriage more seriously.
"Women represent 50 percent of humanity and countries are holding themselves back in terms of their economic development by discriminating against girls and women," he told a press conference last week.
"We are saying 'imagine what would happen when women and girls are set free and can participate in decision-making.'"
The Elders, which launched the "Girls Not Brides" movement in New York last year said 80 organisations were already part of the alliance, including 15 from India, to share knowledge and coordinate their activities.
On his four-day visit to India Tutu was accompanied by Robinson and two other Elders – former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland and Ela Bhatt, an activist who founded India's largest female trade unions. The four Elders said they are using their collective global weight to build up an international alliance of charities dedicated to ending child marriage.
Experts say many local and international non-government agencies who work on early marriage issues often work in isolation, far removed from others grappling with the same challenges – be it in Asia, Africa or the Middle East.
Worldwide, around 10 million girls under the age of 18 are married every year – often without their consent, before they are mentally or sexually ready for such a relationship. The practice is most prevalent in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, despite laws in most countries banning it.
In a rapidly modernising region, tightly bound by traditional patriarchal views, South Asian women face a plethora of threats from sexual violence, dowry murders, discrimination in health, education and land rights as well as child marriage.
In India alone, 47 percent of women between the ages of 20 and 24 married before the legal age of 18, according the government's latest National Family Health Survey.
Tutu linked the issue of child marriage to development.
"It's been shown that where child marriage is in vogue, six of the eight millennium development goals, you can forget about," he said referring to a string of goals 192 U.N. members agreed to implement by 2015.
The goals include reducing child and maternal mortality, ending poverty and hunger, providing universal education, gender equality and combating HIV/AIDS.
"You can forget obviously gender equality. You can forget about education because a girl leaves school when she gets married and you can forget about reducing poverty as she is hardly likely to earn a great deal with no education."
Child marriage also threatens the health of a young mother, he said, adding that a girl giving birth at 15 is five times more likely to die in the process than a girl of 19 or older. While her infant is 60 percent more likely to die.
He added that girls who were married, often to older men, had little control over their sex lives and were more likely to be infected by HIV/AIDS.
During the visit to India, the Elders also met with government officials and visited the impoverished eastern region of Bihar, where around 69 percent of girls are married before 18 years old, 48 percent before 15.
Robinson, who was the first female to become president in Ireland, said they had been impressed to see new initiatives such as Jagriti – a youth awareness programme run by Pathfinder International – which is helping to increase the average age of marriage.
"These teenagers were very smart and they desperately want to be part of their state and their country's incredible progress, but they know that getting married very young will hold them back," said Robinson, a former U.N. human rights commissioner.
"They are working hard to enlist the support of adults to help them complete their education and marry later. We get the sense that things are changing ... and we hope that progress can be made more quickly so that these wonderful young people can fulfill their dreams."