Inspirational Woman Interview: Lakshmi Sundaram

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Lakshmi Sundaram is the Executive Director of Girls Not Brides, an independent charity and global partnership of more than 650 civil society organisations from over 85 countries committed to ending child marriage. She is particularly interested in broadening our understanding of effective approaches to address child marriage, and ensuring that the funding, policy and program support are available to ensure that girls around the world can thrive. Lakshmi is experienced in forging alliances across the public, private and NGO sectors, encouraging diverse people and groups to join forces for change. Her background is in global health partnerships, including at the World Economic Forum’s Global Health Initiative, the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics in Switzerland, Voxiva in the United States and with the Ministry of Health in Rwanda. Lakshmi holds a BA in Biochemistry from the University of Cambridge, as well as Master of Public Health and Master of International Affairs degrees from Columbia University.

How did Girls Not Brides emerge?

Lakshmi Sundaram: Girls Not Brides was founded 5 years ago by The Elders, a group of independent global leaders working together for peace and human rights. The Elders set up Girls Not Brides because they were shocked at how little attention was being paid to the 15 million girls who are married each year before the age of 18. Marriage for these girls often takes place before they have had a chance to complete secondary, or even primary school, and before they are physically and mentally ready to have a child. The consequences for girls are often devastating. Complications during child birth can result in pregnancy-related injuries such as obstetric fistula, and, in some cases, death. Going back into education is virtually impossible. The Elders also saw the need for a platform bringing together civil society organisations that were working on this issue, to help them learn from one another, work together and create a global movement to end child marriage.

In some countries, Girls Not Brides member organisations have come together to form National Partnerships to end child marriage. These National Partnerships are playing a crucial role working with governments to develop, implement and monitor national strategies to end child marriage. Through collective engagement, Girls Not Brides member organisations have a real opportunity to help drive national movements to end child marriage and enable millions of girls to realise their full potential.

What has been Girls Not Brides’ impact so far?

Lakshmi Sundaram: In terms of impact, the work of the 700 member organisations of the Girls Not Brides Partnership, as well as our partners, has led to a number of important regional and national initiatives aimed at ending child marriage. For example, in 2015 we were excited to see that the Sustainable Development Goals include a target to end child marriage by 2030, which is a commitment taken by the 193 countries that are members of the United Nations. The African Union Campaign to End Child Marriage has also helped put child marriage on the development agenda for many African countries. To date,  governments in seventeen countries have launched the campaign, with more to follow, and a growing number of them are developing national strategies to put into place comprehensive and practical initiatives to curb child marriage. In South Asia, we have seen a growing number of countries taking steps to end child marriage. For example Nepal held their first Girl Summit dedicated to ending child marriage.

In your opinion, what are some of the biggest cultural and institutional barriers to ending child marriage? 

Lakshmi Sundaram: When we first started, there was an overwhelming silence surrounding the issue of child marriage: it was a taboo subject many were reluctant discuss, especially at the global level. Slowly this is beginning to change, with more and more governments taking concrete steps to end child marriage, such as raising the minimum age of marriage to 18 or developing a national action plan to end child marriage. However, these steps will only have an impact on the lives of girls if they are fully budgeted, and developed and implemented in coordination with civil society organisations.

What have been some initiatives Girls Not Brides has led to tackle these barriers?

Lakshmi Sundaram: It is also important to remember that, ultimately what will make a difference in the life of a girl vulnerable to child marriage is a change in her local context. This is what Girls Not Brides members are working on in many different ways and in different contexts, to ensure that: her parents decide that child marriage is not the best or only option; she has the tools and ability to talk to them about the advantages of delaying marriage; other options, such as schooling or economic opportunity, are available to her; and local community, religious and traditional leaders are convinced that ending child marriage will benefit their community at large. Change will be a distinctly local phenomenon, but a global movement that brings together civil society, governments, donors, international agencies, religious and traditional leaders and local communities – which Girls Not Brides is helping to lead – can help bring it about.

What are some of the causes of child marriage?

Lakshmi Sundaram: Child marriage happens to girls because they are girls; because they are seen as being less valuable than boys. Girls are often seen as a one more mouth to feed or a financial burden for families who are facing extreme poverty. Poverty, lack of education, and insecurity fuel and sustain the practice. For example, during a humanitarian crises, such as in conflict or after a natural disaster, parents may see marrying off their daughters as the best way of ensuring her safety, when in reality it could put her at greater risk of violence or exploitation. The causes of child marriage will vary from one community to the next and the practice may look different across regions and countries, even within the same country.

And in many places, child marriage is also a traditional practice that persists because it is what everyone has seen for generations, and is what everyone expects. In some communities, when a girl starts to menstruate, she becomes a woman in the eyes of the community. Marriage is therefore the next step towards giving a girl her status as a wife and mother.

On a personal level, why does women’s empowerment matter to you?

Lakshmi Sundaram: I have a small son and daughter, and I am determined to do my part so that they can grow up in a world where men and women are equal. I’ve seen how child marriage can hold women back, and it is heart-breaking to talk to girls whose dreams were cut short because they became wives and mothers much too young. But I’ve also seen how, when girls and women are empowered, they can change the world. Child marriage may have been a reality for generations. But it is so exciting to see how change is happening, through the work of amazing activists around the world: by working together, we can break the cycle of violence, poverty and inequality. And that is a huge motivation for me.

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