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‘All girls need is a chance’ says Michelle Obama at Cape Town discussion on eradicating child marriage

‘All girls need is a chance’ says Michelle Obama at Cape Town discussion on eradicating child marriage
Michelle Obama and Graca Machel shares a moment during a discussion on Ending Child Marriage and Empowering Adolescent Girls in Cape Town on Thursday, 16 November, 2023. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

Former First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama, global philanthropist Melinda French Gates and leading human rights lawyer Amal Clooney gathered in Cape Town on Thursday to discuss eradicating child marriage and empowering girls across the world. They were joined by activist and former South African First Lady Graça Machel, who emphasised that every girl should have the right to make decisions about ‘her body, her life, her future’.

“I see girls all over the world who are looking for just a chance to be seen… The answers to everything we’re looking for are in these girls… They are smart, they are ambitious, they know what they want. And all they need is a chance.”

These were the words of Michelle Obama, former First Lady of the United States (US) and founder of the Girls Opportunity Alliance, at a discussion on eradicating child marriage and empowering adolescent girls, held in Cape Town on Thursday.

Obama was joined by Melinda French Gates, global philanthropist and co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; Amal Clooney, human rights lawyer and co-founder of the Clooney Foundation for Justice; and Graça Machel, activist, former First Lady of South Africa and founder of the Graça Machel Trust.

According to Dr Faith Mwangi-Powell, CEO of the global partnership Girls Not Brides, an estimated 12 million girls are married globally every year. This amounts to about one child marriage every three seconds.

Amal Clooney, Michelle Obama, Graca Machel and Melinda French Gates

Amal Clooney, Michelle Obama, Graca Machel and Melinda French Gates met in Cape Town on Thursday to raise awareness and find solutions to end child marriage around the world, on 16 November 2023. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

In 2021, 207 child marriages were recorded in South Africa. Of these, 188 involved child brides and 19 involved child grooms, according to a report by Daily Maverick’s Takudzwa Pongweni.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Child marriages in South Africa – when wedlock turns to padlock

Collaborating to end child marriage

During a recent trip to Malawi, Obama, French Gates and Clooney met with partner organisations involved in the fight to end child marriage, including Advancing Girls’ Education in Africa, the Women Lawyers Association of Malawi and Girls Not Brides Malawi.

The trip followed an announcement by the three women in October 2022 that their respective organisations would begin collaborating to advance gender equality and end child marriage.

Reflecting on her time spent in Malawi, Obama said, “I saw myself in those girls”.

“I grew up in a working-class community… We were regular black folks on the south side of Chicago; we were poor. And when you’re poor and black in America, you know you’re being uninvested in,” she explained, adding that she became aware she was being undervalued in schools and classrooms from a young age.

Michelle Obama, Child marriage

Michelle Obama during a discussion on Ending Child Marriage and Empowering Adolescent Girls in Cape Town on Thursday, 16 November, 2023. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

Across the world, in countries such as Malawi, there are girls who know who they are and their power but are being undervalued, according to Obama. These girls need people with access to money and power to invest in them.

“It doesn’t cost that much to fix this, but it requires much more than we’re doing… We should be doing more,” she said. “The girls are doing everything in their power — they’re showing up; they’re ready to do the work. The question is, what are we going to do?”

Valued and empowered

Machel seconded the idea that girls were still not valued in many communities, with their male counterparts ascribed greater worth.

“It starts in the family when parents believe that they have the right to decide about [a girl’s] life, to decide about her future, and somehow, they feel they have the right to exchange girls for something… material,” she said.

“We have to remind everyone that a girl is a full human being… She has the right to decide about her body, her life, her future.”

It was often traditions and social norms that led to the oppression of girls, she continued, adding that it was everyone’s responsibility to dismantle such traditions.

According to French Gates, it was Machel who first took her out into the communities of Mozambique in 2003, to learn about people’s lives and experiences.

What I learned from Graça is that if you’re going to do any of this, you have got to be out in communities and learn what’s really going on for people… What are they up against? What are the struggles?” she said.

Michelle Obama, Graca Machel and Melinda French Gates

Michelle Obama, Graca Machel and Melinda French Gates during the discussion. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

“What I have learned over 20-plus years of work is that girls [in communities] tell you, ‘I want a better future, I want a better way, I want a different way of life’.”

All too often, the dreams of girls who desire a better education and further skills development are stunted by practices such as child marriage, according to French Gates.

“Girls need to learn about their health — their mental health, their reproductive health [and] their bodies, so they can protect themselves. They also want to have their voice; they want to have their agency in society,” she said.

People should not choose between investing in their sons or daughters, she continued, as investment in both was needed to bring about better societies.

“What we’ve come to know now — finally, through gathering information, gathering statistics — is [that] not only are families better off when their daughters are actually empowered, when they go on to be healthier, wealthier… but it [also] empowers the community. It empowers the country and society,” said French Gates.

Child marriage discussion audience members

The audience listens during the discussion held by Amal Clooney, Michelle Obama, Graca Machel and Melinda French Gate in Cape Town on Thursday, 16 November, 2023. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

Clooney highlighted law as a powerful tool for effecting change, alongside the collaboration of international allies in the enforcement of legal measures against child marriage.

“We need to ‘wage’ justice, it doesn’t just happen… More than 40 African nations have child marriage laws that do not comply with international standards. Child marriage impacts [a girl’s] health, increases her risk of being subjected to violence and reduces her educational and employment opportunities,” said Clooney.

“That is why at [the Clooney Foundation for Justice] we are looking for opportunities to change these laws and increase access to justice… Alongside Michelle, Melinda and our incredible local partners, I am proud to be empowering women and girls across the continent to know their rights and make child marriage history.” DM


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