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Speech by Lilian Gonçalves – Ho Kang You at the presentation of the Geuzen Medal to Girls Not Brides on 13 March 2018

Your Royal Highness, relatives of former Geuzen, Excellencies, dear guests, girls and boys,


Somewhere in the world, a girl is standing on the threshold. Soon she will be married. That’s a big adventure. Particularly when you are just fourteen years old, or thirteen. Today she has the rest of her life ahead of her; tomorrow she will be a housewife, dogsbody and slave. Soon she’ll be a mother. Somewhere in the world, a child is getting married now.


Let me put it more precisely: while saying those words, twelve girls got married. Every two seconds, somewhere in the world a girl enters an arranged marriage. In the space of every two words I say, a child is forced into a marriage.


Thirteen-year-old Maria from Burkina Faso escaped that fate. But she had to walk more than 170 kilometres to escape from a forced marriage with a 70-year-old man, who already had five wives. Uncertain but determined, Maria walked for three whole days to find a safe refuge in a shelter for young girls.


Soemintra also managed to avoid a forced marriage. As a lawyer in Surinam, I advised this businesswoman in transactions. One day she asked me to start divorce proceedings for her. It wasn’t a problem: she and her husband had been separated for years. What’s more, Soemintra met her husband for the first time during the divorce proceedings. She too had been forced into an arranged marriage as a child; she too had run away. As a child, Soemintra lived in an environment where she was protected and sheltered. She was able to develop her skills and became a successful businesswoman. Later she married the man of her choice. This was a human right, but it seemed a privilege.


Can we in the Netherlands imagine societies in which the extent, the consequences and the impact of child marriages are felt on a daily basis? We often say that the numbers and statistics do not capture the imagination. But imagine this: every year, fifteen million girls around the world, every year fifteen million girls are forced into arranged marriages. That is almost double the entire female population in the Netherlands.


The stories of Maria and Soemintra are the hopeful exceptions to the ugly rule: the improbable phenomenon of child marriages transcends continents, religions and cultures. We mainly encounter child marriages where people live in poverty or in conflict zones, where the inequalities of power are pronounced, widespread and life-threatening.


Children have the right to grow up healthily in a safe environment. They have the right to education and free time. Children have the right to play. And of course they have the right to be protected from child labour, abuse and sexual exploitation. And when they are adults, they have the right to choose their own spouse or life partner. It all sounds so obvious, yet all these rights are so far out of reach for those millions of children forced into arranged marriages every year.


Child marriages are a persistent phenomenon, embedded in ancient traditions and structures. So they will not just disappear. Action is required. But sensible action. Sustainable action.


From The Elders, a network of global leaders set up by Nelson Mandela and of which Princess Mabel of Orange was the CEO between 2008 and 2012, the initiative was launched to bring an end to the phenomenon of child marriages within one generation. Mabel of Orange was one of the founders and chair of Girls Not Brides, a global partnership against child marriages.


Girls Not Brides is a special initiative. The will to eliminate a widespread, profoundly life-changing and degrading phenomenon, but without losing sight of the humanity of all involved for even one moment. Girls Not Brides works on the basis of respect for members of the communities in which child marriages are normal and wants to work with these communities. Because they are in the best position to bring an end to the phenomenon in a sustainable way.


The girls, married and single, are key to Girls Not Brides. It’s about their resilience and self-awareness. In addition, the organisation wants to mobilise families and communities and stimulate governments and authorities to make sound laws and good policy and ensure compliance. Together, they can then stop child marriages.


Cooperation is essential. Legal measures such as a minimum marriageable age of eighteen are vital, but not sufficient to eliminate child marriages. The discrimination of girls and women will also have to be addressed by governments and communities.


In the vision of Girls Not Brides, I see a parallel with the approach taken by Prince Claus to development cooperation. His motto was that we can’t develop people. People develop themselves and we can support them and motivate them to achieve change. It sounds obvious, but it is an important lesson, one that we have learned with ups and downs.


For me, it is therefore an honour to be able to tell you something about Mabel of Orange and Lakshmi Sundaram, the passionate women at the helm of Girls Not Brides.


25 years ago Mabel of Orange founded the European Action Council for Peace in the Balkans. The fight for human rights and peace never left its hold on her. She worked for the Open Society Foundations, was the first CEO of The Elders and then founder and chair of Girls Not Brides. In addition, Mabel of Orange was and is active as initiator, manager and advisor, for example at War Child Holland, the international NGO coalition for the International Criminal Court, Global Witness, The European Council on Foreign Relations and the Malala Fund.


She is both a visionary and practical manager, consultant and tireless fighter. For peace. For human rights. For justice.


Mabel of Orange leads Girls Not Brides together with Lakshmi Sundaram. Lakshmi is director of Girls Not Brides. She has expanded the cooperative venture into an independent organisation in which more than 900 organisations in over 90 countries work together for human rights, health, education and child protection. She has extensive experience relating to international cooperative ventures, for example in health care.


At the same time, Lakshmi has a very personal bond with Girls Not Brides. She told me that child marriages were part of her own family history. Her grandmother married when she was 13 and her great grandmother when she was 9. Lakshmi’s own fate was different. This reminds us that change is not just a goal, but also a real possibility. A world without child marriages is a better world and a realistic goal.


Today it is my honour to present the Geuzen Medal 2018 to Girls Not Brides. With great determination, they fight against the violation of the rights of girls and women. With great determination, they make an important contribution to the fight for the dignity of women.

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