I, along with the rest of the world, was so sad to learn about the passing of treasured human rights champion Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I had the immense honor of interviewing the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate twice—once alongside former President Jimmy Carter and the first woman President of Ireland Mary Robinson about the transformative work of their group The Elders, “an independent group of eminent global leaders, brought together by Nelson Mandela, who offer their collective influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity,” and another time about Girls Not Brides, the Elders’ important campaign to end child marriage, one of the most shocking and disturbing practices facing girls around the world today (every year, twelve million girls are forcibly married before the age of 18, many as young as 12 or 13 years old).
Archbishop Tutu, described by many as the “world’s moral compass,” had so much empathy, insight, compassion and timeless wisdom to share, and I wanted to provide some of it here in the hopes that we can all honor his legacy by aspiring to embody the vision and principles he upheld, which are more important and timely than ever.
As he told me, “We are all connected. What unites us is our common humanity…. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas what you do, what I do, affects the whole world. Taking that a step further, when you do good, it spreads that goodness; it is for the whole of humanity.”
Below are excerpts from my inspiring interviews with Tutu:
Marianne Schnall: What are the factors that cause parents and society to allow and even encourage child marriages to take place?
Desmond Tutu: I am convinced that there is no mother or father on this earth who doesn’t want the best for their child. Indeed, many parents marry off their daughters young because they feel it is in her best interest, often to ensure her safety in areas where girls are at high risk of physical or sexual assault.
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And of course poverty, too, is an important perpetuating factor. Who am I to criticize the decisions of parents who live in extreme poverty with large families to support who decide to marry their daughters young because they simply can’t afford to feed her, or because of the bride price that she can fetch? Sadly, in many communities where child marriage is practiced, girls are not valued as much as boys—they are seen as a burden. The challenge will be to change parents’ attitudes and emphasize that girls who avoid early marriage and stay in school will likely be able to make a greater contribution to their family and their community in the long term.
I must also stress that no major religion promotes the practice of child marriage. Child marriage is a traditional practice that happens today simply because that is the way things have been done for many generations. We have met some brave religious and traditional leaders who recognize the harmful effects of child marriage and who are actively encouraging their communities to end the practice, but unfortunately, in countries where this is common, they’re still in the minority. We want to encourage men and boys to stand up for their daughters’ and sisters’ rights. Community leaders and religious leaders, fathers and brothers can all join the effort to end child marriage.
Schnall: What will it take to end the practice?
Tutu: Simply put, we do not have to accept that child marriage happens because it is just “how things have always been” or that it is a tradition and can’t change. What we want is for world leaders to make sure this change happens on a global scale. I’m going to the World Economic Forum in Davos to encourage leaders to implement, at regional and national levels, programs that have been proven to prevent child marriage. It’s the kind of work that’s being done already by people at a local level. Now just imagine the scale of change possible if our leaders followed their brave lead.
Schnall: What are the mission and goals of the Girls Not Brides Campaign?
Tutu: We Elders are a humble bunch! We initiated Girls Not Brides, a global partnership of activists and organizations committed to ending child marriage, because we realize that there are a lot of people out there who know much more about child marriage and who already are doing some truly admirable work to end the practice. What we hope to do is to bring together this collective wisdom, to learn from each other what works—and what doesn’t—and to use our collective clout to bring this issue to global attention. In many ways, it echoes the philosophy behind The Elders, that by working together we are stronger.
Schnall: The Elders organization is an independent group of eminent global leaders. People grow through many different stages of life from infancy to adolescence, adult to midlife, to being elders. What type of unique wisdom do you think our elders have to offer?
Tutu: I certainly don’t think we are oracles, but I would hope that over our lifetimes we have accumulated some useful experience and perhaps even a modicum of wisdom! We don’t have all the answers. What we try to do as Elders is help those who are trying to change their own societies and communities for the better. We hope that by supporting the good work that is being done, especially at the grass roots, we can help to alleviate the suffering of human beings. That is our core mission: to draw attention to the impact that conflict, injustice and poverty have on ordinary people. And we want to use what influence we have at a leadership level to make sure that those who can change things do so.
Schnall: There are many critical issues the world faces. How do you see them as interconnecting?
Tutu: When we look at a conflict, it is so often rooted in injustice, prejudice, competition for resources, poverty, poor governance and corruption. Poverty—the greatest cause of human suffering on the planet—is itself exacerbated by conflict, competition for resources, injustice, even the global downturn and climate change. Diseases like AIDS, TB and malaria cannot be tackled without adequate resources. So you see everything is connected. In order to address any major cause of human suffering, we have to work together across many fronts.
It may seem daunting, but I am a prisoner of hope. We are more connected than ever before, we have more knowledge, and there are solutions if we work together.
Today’s technology is a great asset in encouraging global cooperation and understanding. I used to have to travel the world making the same speeches about apartheid and the campaign to release Nelson Mandela. People were simply not connected the way they are today. Now there are so many ways to communicate. I love the way young people communicate across the globe using the internet and mobile phones. It is so exciting. We Elders are even known to Tweet!
Schnall: What commonalities do you see between people of different cultures, religions and nationalities?
Tutu: We are all connected. What unites us is our common humanity. I don’t want to oversimplify things – but the suffering of a mother who has lost her child is not dependent on her nationality, ethnicity or religion. White, black, rich, poor, Christian, Muslim or Jew – pain is pain – joy is joy. In Southern Africa we have a concept called Ubuntu – which is that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. You can’t be human all by yourself. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas what you do, what I do, affects the whole world. Taking that a step further, when you do good, it spreads that goodness; it is for the whole of humanity. When you suffer or cause suffering, humanity is diminished as a result.
Marianne Schnall is a widely-published interviewer and journalist and author of What Will It Take to Make a Woman President?, Leading the Way, and Dare to Be You. She is also the founder of Feminist.com and What Will It Take Movements and the host of the podcast ShiftMakers.