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Global Activists Urge India End to Child Marriage

South African Archbishop and Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu (R) speaks as former President of Ireland Mary Robinson watches during an interview in New Delhi, February 8, 2012.

A group of prominent global activists known as “The Elders” is in India to take a public stand against the international practice of child marriage.

South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu, chair of The Elders, said Thursday in New Delhi the group's initiative “Girls, Not Brides” would help India tap into its true potential.

“India is an economic giant in the making. And we are saying, imagine what would happen when women and girls are set free,” the Archbishop said.

The Elders is an independent group of former world leaders who seek to use their influence to end major causes of human suffering around the world.

Mary Robinson, Ireland's first woman president, said child marriage attracted the group's attention because of the sheer number of children affected globally.

“The issue of child marriage is not a minor issue. It's 10 million girls a year. That's a 100 million girls in 10 years that are married, usually without their consent or even their knowledge of who they are going to marry,” explained Robinson.

Child marriage has been illegal in India for decades. Still, studies indicate about a third of those 10 million girls who get married under the age of 18 live in India.

A 2006 national survey in India found that one in five women between the ages of 20 and 24 got married before turning 15.

The practice is often ascribed to ancient religious traditions, and the mindset that views daughters as a liability to be sent away from the household as early as possible.

Ela Bhatt, an activist who founded one of India's largest women's trade unions, said taking on the issue of child marriage is central to achieving global development goals.

“Like poverty, child marriage is violence. And violence that is happening with the consent of the society,” said Bhatt.

Gro Harlem Brundtland is a member of the The Elders and was Norway's first woman prime minister.

“As a doctor, I want to emphasize how it also has health effects. Damaging effects on young bodies and young girls, and even on the infants that an early pregnancy leads to,” said Brundtland.

“Girls, Not Brides” pulls together grass roots organizations from more than 80 countries. The Elders says the initiative will determine a set of best practices for educating and politically influencing local communities to stop underage marriage.