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“Is it a boy, or is it a child?” is a question former president of Ireland, Mary Robinson, heard her father lament as she was growing up. A country doctor, her father was asked this question time and again by mothers at home births.

Many decades later, when Mary Robinson sat down with other Elders members to discuss efforts to advance women and girls out of society’s second class position, it became clear how big an obstacle tradition is.

“An estimated 10 million girls aged under 18 are married worldwide, most of them without knowing in advance the husband that they’re going to be married to; that’s more than 25 thousand girls every single day,” said Robinson in a CBC radio interview.

“I was talking to a young girl [in Behar, India]. She was 16 and had been married for a year. I said, ‘Tell me about your wedding day.’ And she said, ‘I had to drop out of school.’ I realized, here was a 15-year-old at school with her friends playing, and then her parents called her in one day and said, ‘Tomorrow you will be married, we’re paying the dowry, and you’ll go to his house and you’ll do what is expected of you.’”

Despite India’s law against child marriage, sometimes it’s poverty that leads to it (the dowry increases for older, 15-year-old girls), sometimes family honour (preventing the chance of any daughter to have an affair outside marriage), but it’s always rooted in the belief that female is inferior to male – it is female foetus infanticide that is increasing in middleclass India.

There are, though, signs of change. At one school in rural India young teenage girls are learning how to negotiate with their parents to stay in school longer. If a girl finds out she is going to be married off, the other girls come to her parents to plead for her. Boys at the school are taught that their female classmates are too young to marry, a message that will hopefully be with them when the boys become men.

Robinson is also encouraged by a federal government stipulation that no state should have less than 30 percent women in local governments. Initially these female district representatives, wives with no previous experience in roles outside the home, kept quiet, observed and did nothing. Over time, however, these women began to voice their views, including on things such as child marriage.

“If girls stay in school and develop their own potential through education,” says Robinson, “they will be better mothers, they will get better jobs, they will be more inclined to insure that their daughters don’t get involved in early child marriage, they will be much better at ensuring that there is good food and nutrition for the family, they will space their families. All of this is well documented in development literature.”

The Elders have made gender equality a priority through its Girls Not Brides global partnerships, but they are not alone. Other foundations and organisations, such as CARE, Save the Children and UNICEF, are also prioritizing the girl child in development.

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