Opinion

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.

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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.

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.

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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 After years of writing about the ways in which marriage is an unfair and outdated institution (in these very pages, in fact), I found myself falling in love with a man for whom it was a dearly held value.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.

I could have easily refused to get married. I can point out a hundred and one ways in which the institution is flawed. It was hard for me to listen to my partner and trusted friends, to consider new angles and complicate my view.

When I think about the discomfort that the proponents of child marriage will have to feel in the coming months and years as they reconsider their position, I actually have great empathy. Their worldview, like mine, is organized around set beliefs about what is rational and right. Shaking those foundations is going to be much harder than clinging to their long-held beliefs and practices. It requires letting go of control, relinquishing certainty, a great and painful humbling.

There are, however, plenty of promising real life examples of how this can happen. Foot-binding in China, a centuries-old tradition in which little girls’ feet were literally bound so that their movements would appear more dainty and feminine as they aged, was ended within a few decades. A savvy campaign brought about the rapid shift by working both from the top down, via a government mandate, and also from the bottom up, via a pledge system among parents that they would neither bind their own daughters’ feet nor let their sons marry girls whose feet had been bound.

Another hopeful and more recent story of cultural change comes from Senegal, where networks of local women have educated one another about the dangers of female genital cutting – once thought to be an essential rite of passage. Public declarations and community pledges help reinforce the word-of-mouth approach, largely driven by a community-led development organization called Tostan. While the work in Senegal and other West African countries isn’t finished, norms are undeniably shifting to keep girls safe.

Those who study how traditions shift have found that, rather than a tipping point, there is often a “tipping person” who makes all the difference. In other words, those with clout in the community can be pivotal influencers in shifting whole communities’ perspectives and practices. According to a 2009 report by The International Center for Research for Women that looked closely at such examples, “Mobilizing the support of influential males in the innovation system was a powerful, commonly employed strategy that enabled more dramatic results in women’s empowerment.”

We look at social change with a macro lens so often, but rarely do we zoom in on this micro truth – large-scale change requires individuals who are willing to take a chance on a new idea or practice. It requires individual discomfort and courage and flexibility. This is what maturity – in an individual or in a society – is really about. We must deeply consider the radical power of abandoning some traditions and re-imagining others.

This is the challenge ahead for us all. While a 13-year-old should never be forced to marry, a 31-year-old should sometimes be forced to reconsider her stubborn views on old traditions. And elders and role models – as so gracefully demonstrated by Mr. Tutu, Mr. Mandela, Ms. Robinson, and others – should exemplify the never-ending challenge of growing, changing, and letting go.

As the world has seen, a few respected members of a community can bring about a sea change in social norms within a generation. With that kind of precedent in our past, there is room to hope that the world has seen its last generation of child brides.

Courtney E. Martin is the author of the new book, “Project Rebirth: Survival and the Strength of the Human Spirit from 9/11 Survivors,” as well as “Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists,” “Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body,” and coeditor of the anthology “Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists.” She is also editor emeritus at feministing.com. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

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