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What this feminist and child-marriage proponents have in common

When I met my fiancé, I had to reconsider my objection to marriage. Likewise, as the campaign known as Girls Not Brides kicks off, patriarchs who support child marriage will also have to reconsider their views; fortunately, there are models for how to change social norms about women.

By Courtney E. Martin / September 29, 2011

New York

Last week, just as I was sending out save-the-date emails for my impending wedding, I received an email from a friend about the newly launched Girls Not Brides Campaign, an effort to end child marriage. Much discussed at this year’s Clinton Global Initiative, the campaign is being championed by the United Nations and The Elders – an independent group of eminent global leaders, brought together by Nelson Mandela and led in this initiative by Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

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Turns out that 10 million girls – that’s 25,000 a day – are married before they turn 18. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, one of the Elders, said that he is as committed to ending child marriage as he once was to ending apartheid. He’s sure got a lot of old male peers to convince if he’s going to make a dent.

Receiving that email was one of those moments when the clash of civilizations makes a big boom right in your own inbox.

At 31, I have decided to get married with no small amount of trepidation. After years of writing about the ways in which marriage is an unfair and outdated institution (in these very pages, in fact), I found myself falling in love with a man for whom it was a dearly held value. After years of railing against the wedding industrial complex with its manipulative marketing and outrageous price points, I was discussing the importance of ritual, community, commitment, and witness.

I was a black-and-white thinker compelled to see all the shades of gray for the first time, an idealistic 20-something confronted with the way my strongly held beliefs grew weak and shrill as they played out in my impending 30-something life. But more than anything, I was a feminist predisposed to see the hypocrisy in all traditions, suddenly confronting their deep and complex value.

In contrast, the Girls Not Brides Campaign must convince a diverse group of patriarchs from Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe of the deep and complex value of letting a tradition die. The campaign is already engaging local community leaders and grassroots activists in places like Ethiopia and India to empower girls and women and educate the tradition’s proponents (largely men but not solely men) about the hazards of child marriage. Girls under 15 are five times as likely to die in childbirth than women in their twenties, and illiteracy and economic insecurity are rampant in societies that still practice this inhumane rite.

As different as we may seem – the patriarchs and me – we actually have a similar challenge to face. How does one open up to have his or her heart and mind changed? How do cultures actually shift?

We spend so much time talking to people who believe the same things that we do. There has been much digital ink spilled about the ways in which the Internet has just intensified this balkanization of opinions. We also spend some time, although I wish we spent even more, talking about how to change hearts and minds.

At The Op-Ed Project, where I am a facilitator and advisor, we teach people that the best way to make an effective argument is to have empathy and respect for your ideological opposite. If you can’t humanize the person you disagree with, and really speak to their fears, opinions, and experiences, than how can you ever expect to do anything but preach to the choir?

But what we, as a society, rarely talk about is what it takes to be the one open to change. We rarely discuss what it is like to have an opinion and, rather than clinging to it stubbornly, allowing oneself to be vulnerable to influence and novel insights. This is what I was up against. This is what the tribal chiefs are up against.


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