Africa: When Graca Machel, Michelle Obama, Melinda French Gates and Amal Clooney Walk into a Room ...

4 December 2023

... they're there to speak about ending child marriage in this generation, not 10 years from now. (The panel discussion was moderated by Redi Tlhabi, South African journalist and author.)


Memory Banda, child rights activist

And now it is my great pleasure to introduce the next conversation. Please welcome Redi Tlhabi, who moderates the next discussion with the global philanthropist and co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Ms Melinda French Gates, and the former first lady of South Africa and Mozambique, and the founder of the Graca Machel Trust and the Foundation for Community Development, Graca Machel.

And the former First Lady of the United States and the founder of the Girls Opportunity Alliance Mrs. Michelle Obama, and leading human rights lawyer and co-founder of the Clooney Foundation for Justice, Mrs Amal Clooney. Please give them a warm welcome.

Redi Tlhabi, moderator
Good afternoon, have a seat, please. Thank you. Good afternoon, everybody. It's great to be back in Mzansi, the beautiful Mother City. I'm delighted to be your moderator this afternoon. So I never know how I'm going to feel until I step into the room and feel the energy of the people sitting in front of me. So let me tell you how I feel. I feel challenged. I feel energised. I feel encouraged. What is encouraging me is that as I cast my eye around the room, I see allies. I see leaders in society, I see people who care about the issue of child marriage.

But I also see people who come from humble beginnings and are trailblazers in their own right, that is important. It is important because when we hear the statistics that we heard from the previous panel, when you reckon with the fact that 4% of girls married before the age of 18, in South Africa, when you contend with the intractable malaise of child pregnancy in South Africa, just during the COVID, lockdown, 60% Child, child pregnancy increased by 60%. So when you look at those statistics, it is so easy to be demotivated, to feel overwhelmed, and to feel that you are all alone in the world, traumatised by this reality, but in the two minutes I have been standing in front of you, I know that we can make the change that we want to see.

I also know that you may not be an academic, you may not be an activist, you may not be a global financier, you may not be a legal fundi, but you've got something, you've got something that you can bring to the table to make the change that you want to see. So as I start this conversation, I'm thinking about another formidable daughter of South Africa. Who remembers Sibongile Khumalo, the singer? Yeah, she has a song called Little Girl. And that is her affirmation of girls. There's a line where she says, 'Remember when the sky becomes the limit, reach, girl, reach! And remember that your arms are like the waves of the ocean.' What do waves do? They cause a disruption. They progressively build up this energy to cause variation and a disruption. And that's what we are here to do today. Is that okay with you? Okay.

We are advocating to end child marriage with people who not only walk the talk, but their life's work is emblematic of this. I'm gonna start with Mama, because nobody calls her anything else but Mama. You have said, Mama, that equality is not a women's issue. It's a societal issue. But we know that we can't change society unless we empower women, unless we empower girls. From your perspective and your life's work. What have you identified as the greatest barriers towards empowering girls in reaching this transformation?


Graca Machel, founder and chair, Graca Machel Trust and Activist
Well, thank you for having me. And I want to start by complaining. I would like to have been introduced as activist rather than former first lady. I want to claim that my presence here isn't sitting with you there.

Yes, because all of us here we are sitting because in one way or the other, we are activists. Even Michelle who performed the role of first lady, she's not here because she's First Lady. Right? Anyway, your question is the obstacles, issues. Whooo! Look, the first one, which I'm going to put it's sort of a philosophical, but I think it's really the core of the problem. It's because girls are not seen, valued, as full human beings.

And it starts in the family, when parents believe that they have the right to decide about her life, to decide about the future. And somehow, they believe they have the right to exchange girl for something which is material as if she is a commodity. I think that's the first thing which we have to be aware of. We can have all the laws, we can have old institutions, we can have all these structures.

We can have our agenda of advocacy, but we have to remind everyone that our girl is a full human being. She has an identity. She has an identity, she has the right to decide about, her body, her life, her future, as anyone else. And I used to ask a question, for instance, when parents come and say to us, oh, no, because 'Well, we are very poor, and we needed I mean to exchange, because that's exchange'. I said, 'Okay, that's right. But why don't you start giving away your boy, and you start by the girl.' And that makes the whole difference of why we are debating these things the way we are, because boys, they are being given a value, which is superior to the value of a girl.

So I think in our conversation, whether it is we should raise this issue very strongly that a girl is, and a girl has, the right to decide about herself. That's the first one. The second one is we need to be aware that whatever justifications you know, which are being given, and everyone says, oh, it's tradition, or it's culture. First, there is no culture which oppresses other people. It's not culture, it's traditions, it is the social norms, but it is social norms which are man-made. They are man-made, they are not God-given. So if they have been made by people a long centuries, it is true. We have to be determined that we can dismantle them, because it is our responsibility in our historic time to dismantle all kind of injustices.

Third, and finally, I do realise, ya, I'm going to finish. Have you realised? Have you realised that all injustices in the world, all injustices, they've struck heavily on girls and women. All of them! When it's conflict, whether it's hunger, whether it's poverty, whatever it is, they strike heavily on girls, and women. So you asked me what the priorities are, I could go on. And as we listen, it is legislation, it is ... ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, it is much deeper than that. And that's where we have to identify. I mean, yes, we need better laws, we need better institutions to work, we need families to understand. But most importantly, we need to put a girl in her rightful place as a full human being. That's it.

Redi Tlhabi, moderator
Miss French Gates, let me come to you. I feel like you know this continent like the back of your hand, I mean, anybody who has read your book, The Moment of Lift, which you also launched here in South Africa. I remember the case studies there, the conversations that you had, with young girls and with women, whether it was education or health. And what struck me was that girls and women always know what they need to change their lives. So we are indicted, if we don't give them the tools that they need. That's what came across in your book. So I want to ask you that you spend a lot of time speaking to communities, what do these girls tell you they want? And how can organisations, like yourself, help to dismantle these challenges that we are talking about, child marriage in particular?

Melinda French Gates, co-founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
Well, first of all, let me say this, let me ask Graca a question. Can we call you Mama Activist? I think so. And I want to say how I've learned so much. I mean, how could you possibly know this continent? It's 54 countries, but I come a lot, and talk to women, in particular, and young girls.

And honestly, Graca and I have met in two public settings - 1997, 1999. But she's one of the first people that took me out in 2003 - 20 years ago in Mozambique - out to a community and what I learned from Graca is that if you're going to do any of this work, you have got to be out in community, and learn what's really going on for people, and to hear, you know, what are they up against? What are their struggles? And what I have learned, over you know, 20 plus years of work, is that girls will tell you, I want an education, I want a better way. I want a different way of life. I want to be able to live my dreams.

And so often we stunt those dreams because of things like child marriage that we're talking about. Because we trade a young girl for money off to an older man who buys her from her family. So we have to ... girls are saying they want a good education, they want skills, they need to learn about their health, their mental health, their reproductive health, their bodies, so they can protect themselves. And they also want to have their voice they want to have their agency in society, in their family in their community. And what we have come to know now finally, from finally, you know, gathering the information, gathering the statistics is not only is a family better off when their daughter is actually empowered, because she goes on to be healthier, wealthier, that her children are healthier and wealthier.

But it empowers the community. And guess what, it empowers a country and a society. So we act as if these are either or situations, will I invest in my son? Or will I invest in my daughter? No, we have to invest in both because guess what, both make better societies for us as a world.

Redi Tlhabi, moderator
Thank you so much.

And you've touched on something very important - education.

Mama, I know you won't protest if I mentioned that you were the education and cultural minister of Mozambique, because that is relevant.

Mrs. Obama, we just heard that educating girls is the key to a brighter future. I know that you spent time in Malawi, inspecting an education programme that is supported by the Girls Opportunity Alliance.

And that is the programme that you've helped support. And you funded. I want to know, what did you see, what was so special about the girls that you met? And particularly what lessons can you draw or share with us about the ability of education to transform society?


Michelle Obama, Girls Opportunity Alliance founder and former US First Lady
I saw so much. I saw myself in those girls. First and foremost. You know, this isn't, as Mama said, this isn't an issue that's unique to the African continent. In America, we struggle with valuing girls. And I was one of those girls. I grew up in a working class community. My parents didn't have the opportunity to go to college, we didn't have wealth, we were not networked.

We were regular black folks on the Southside of Chicago, we were poor. And when you're poor, and you're black in America, you know when you're being uninvested in. And I knew very early, I knew as early as four or five years old that the schools in the classrooms that I was going into, they were undervaluing me because I knew my worth even at four and five and six years old.

So fast forward. I'm in Malawi, as I've been in many countries and spent time with many girls around the world. What I see in them is what I saw in me, they know who they are. They know their power. They know their strength, and they know it early. And they know that they're being undervalued, they know they have a voice. They know they have potential. But they also know that they're not being seen. That's what I see. So when I spend time in Malawi, as I do, when I spend time with any of these girls, I see their strength. And I try to remind them, that they are me, and I am them.

And that the only difference between me and them is first of all, I had parents who did value me, including a father who saw me as valuable as my brother, his son. So they understood that I had something to offer. And they put that time and energy into me. That was my edge. But I want those girls to also understand that education was my ticket out. You know,it was my chance. And when I go into Malawi, I see girls grasping on to the one thing and doing everything in their power, to make sure to hear stories of girls who have left their homes and walked away from their villages and their communities, living homelessly trying to trying to fight their way into those classrooms, because they understand the difference that that education can make for them, that hunger. I see that all over the world. I see girls all over the world who are hungry for just a chance, just to be seen.

And they come with their stories and their determination and their resilience and their power. And I think to myself what a shame that we don't have the foresight in this world to invest in them. You know, and so many of us, we talk about the gods that we worship in the faith that we have, one thing I told these girls, I said, Wouldn't it be just like God? To put the answers to all things in the mind of a little girl in Sub- Saharan Africa, and that if we wanted to find the truth, if we wanted to get out all this mess, fix the planet, get rid of misogyny and greed, all we had to do was invest in that girl. Because God understands that we would have to get over ourselves and all over the inequities in order to find that girl and invest in her. And that's what I think when I go to Malawi, the answers to everything we're looking for in these girls are right here. They are smart, they are ambitious.

They know what they know. And all they need is a chance. And all they need is a chance. And so they need leaders like us. And like all of you people who have access and power. And yes, money we heard in the last panel, you know, the funding structure for these issues is weak, you know, giving grants out in a year or two, people deciding on do I want this and is it too expensive, you know, not supporting these leaders that are out here struggling at the grassroots making them live off of pennies and dimes and over reporting them to death. I'm talking to the funders and the people with money in the room today. Because we're here to shed light on the fact that it doesn't cost that much to fix this.

But it requires much more than we're doing - all of us, our governments our individuals, we should be doing more.

The girls are doing everything in their power. They're showing up, they are ready to do the work. The question is, what are we going to do? And how quickly and how sustained will be our investment? This is not a game. This is not just a trip. It's not just a nice way to see a bunch of fancy women. We're talking about investment.

I digressed.

Redi Tlhabi, moderator
No, no, you didn't digress.

Michelle Obama, Girls Opportunity Alliance founder and former US First Lady
But that's what I saw in Malawi. And, uh, you don't have to go to Malawi.

And for all the US citizens who are here today, you can go to any city, in any community in our country. And see the same kind of disinvestment, yes, perhaps we are not marrying our girls off.

But we are not investing in them. So we're all the same. We're all still struggling with the primary point that Mama made that we do not value women and girls in this world. And until we do, we will not fix any of this.

Redi Tlhabi, moderator
Mrs Clooney, let's tap into another global phenomenon. I do know that level of sexual violence in the world is intolerable. But we've got to be honest, we have a high incidence of rape in South Africa. And unique because the prosecution levels are so low. That is a fact - we don't need to be politically correct about it. It is a global phenomenon. But there is a particularity around how it manifests here in our country. Keeping girls at school is important, but keeping them safe is also important. We heard from the other panel, how the burden for accountability and justice falls on the girl. We cannot have that. Can you share more about the work that you do to address this crucial issue of violence and attaining safety for girls.

Amal Clooney, human rights lawyer and co-founder Clooney Foundation for Justice
Thank you so much. First of all, hi, everyone, I'm so delighted to be in amazing Cape Town. It's my second visit. And each time, I'm just blown away by how beautiful this place is. So thank you for having me. Also, I can tell your friendly audience.

I have to share with you just before we came on, Melinda asked Michelle and I what's the worst thing that's ever happened to you on stage. And I was like nothing. It's always gone really smoothly.

And just as I came on, I think this side of the room saw me almost wipe out. And I had lots of friendly faces going aah. So thank you for your support on this side of the room. And maybe not the best conversation to have before coming on stage. As a tip for the public speakers here.

Yes, I mean, gender-based violence, as you say is a global phenomenon. But we also, of course see from the data, just how devastating it's impact here in South Africa, we've been actually gathering, in partners with the Gates Foundation, a lot of data on this. And, you know, we know that South Africa has one of the highest rates of gender-based violence in the world, you're more likely to be killed by your partner here if you're a woman. Five times more likely than the global average, President Ramaphosa has said, I think the quote was 'We have the shameful distinction of being one of the most unsafe places in the world to be a woman.' So the figures are daunting.

As with child marriage, and part of the schedule here for me will be to meet with the Women's Legal Centre to see if we can partner on some strategic litigation on this. But as the Clooney Foundation, this is something we deal with all over the world. Just yesterday, I filed a submission in a case before the International Court of Justice in the Hague, alleging that the conduct in Myanmar against the Rohingyas amounts to genocide, and that involved really shocking levels of sexual violence in a conflict that sort of feels like it's long forgotten. I've spent seven years working with victims of sexual violence in Iraq and Syria, who were taken into a system of sexual slavery by ISIS, like we've never seen in modern times, where, you know, women were separated, the young ones were taken away and sold and traded between ISIS fighters. And, you know, I think people expect some kind of international system just starts to respond, but it doesn't, it's actually the work of ... the courage, first of all, of individual survivors who come forward.

And then the work of of lawyers, I mean, the accountability that we've seen so far for that sexual violence has come from just being able to give evidence from survivors to prosecutors that has triggered trials in national courts. And that has led to now three convictions for genocide, but there should be many more. Closer to here. So we just came from Malawi. And I had the privilege of meeting with some of my clients who are some of the poorest and most vulnerable women in the world, they're out picking tea on tea plantations. And we found out that they are victims of sexual violence, they were being routinely raped and abused by their male supervisors. So we filed the case in the London court against their employer, and we managed to secure a life-changing settlement for for them. So compensation. Financial compensation, safety measures.

Now there are cameras, now they have whistles. Now they have female supervisors if they're alone, and also education and training opportunities. So every time we have a success, like that, we just think, how do we scale this? How can we do this in more places for more women, and actually in Malawi, I got to meet them in person and hear their stories. And I said, so how has your life changed? And it's amazing. They were like, well, I bought two motorbikes. And now we have a delivery service. And by the way, the drivers are male, and now I'm their boss. And that was quite satisfying. And also they are then willing to help. I said that, you know, how many more people like you are there out there in southern Malawi, and we're going to reach more women and we're going to file more cases. So, you know, we try and do what we can no single organisation is going to solve this problem.

But I think you want to create a system where other potential perpetrators are seeing people taken away in handcuffs and prosecuted and behind bars, and it's important for survivors and it's important to start to move the needle away from impunity towards accountability. So I think we'll be doing this work for a long time because if you don't punish this behaviour, then you have no chance of preventing it.

Redi Tlhabi, moderator
Okay, so I think it was so important for you to share the outcomes, the successful outcomes. And it is important because this work is painful and it's traumatising. And it's easy to wake up in the morning and think, What am I doing me and my lone voice, how am I going to shift the needle? But I hope that you can appreciate that there are results. There is something that could be fuel in our journey towards justice and inclusion for women and girls. Do you feel the same? Yes. So Mama, it was deliberate that I mentioned your life as an education minister because you just continue to be a global activist for the wellbeing of girls and women. I want us to continue on this theme of what actually happens when we actually do invest in girls. We are very vulnerable at that adolescent stage, and so many of us don't need to go far to see who we could have been, where we could have been if we did not have the investments that our churches, our societies, our parents, those who could, foundations, wherever you got to the investment, we don't have to go far to see who we would have been, and where our lives would have been truncated. Had we not had those investments. So mama, I'd like you to speak to that. We know the importance of investing in women and girls, but share with us then what do we stand to gain? If we invest meaningfully in the lives of adolescents? What can our country and our continent and our world look like? Now I know that's how I want to ask that question.

Graca Machel, Activist
Look, let's take, as an example, the first panel, we have had here, all of them. Those were panellists including the first young lady to stand here to share her story and the story of her sister. All of them. They are my grandchildren. They are not my children. These are my children, those ones are my grandchildren. So when you see them, standing here, articulating issues the way they do, you just have a very clear example of where we could be. Any story they shared and what they are doing. They are shaking families. They are shaking communities. They are shaking institutions. They have drafted legislation. They have strong agendas of advocacy, which goes all over. I mean, from the community level, for country level, from regional level, global level, they are doing it. That's the example of where we could be if we invested seriously in girls, we had it this afternoon. But then there is much more of what we see. If we had had the opportunity to bring adolescents to speak to us here. You would be blown away.

The organisation I have the pleasure of chairing, the Graca Machel Trust has started to establish and to work with adolescents. Why? Because we decide that it's important to work with these generations which are here. But we have to invest even much earlier, you want to break the cycle of poverty, invest in adolescents, they will grow ... What Michelle was saying the sense of self confidence, they will be able to to affirm and to assert themselves they will be able to make so ... you will have a young generation of women who are going to start from a different level to continue our struggles but not to repeat exactly from the same point where we still are doing. So we need to show these cases, what we could be. I think we need to show these cases. Well, what I don't think we are doing well as activists is that we are not exposing those people who are in positions of power to the power which is coming with these girls, to show and also for them to be confronted, as we are on a daily basis, we are supporting them etc. But those people they need to sit down, to listen, to value exactly the results of the investments which are being made. And this sound for me, it sounds for you also a little bit of philosophy.

I can give you numbers, but it's not the numbers. It's the quality of transformation, which is operating in girls themselves, in women. If I had a time to talk about women, we are working. That's why you start with the question why I believe that equality begins with women. It's because that now not only they transformed themselves, but as we heard here, they transform families, they transform institutions, they transform society. And they even unlock those old people who believe that they have the right to begin to understand that they have no right over anyone else. So I think that's the investment which are doing, but we need to challenge, exposing, giving an opportunity to young activists like these ones, but also adolescents, to be the one so, we don't speak on their behalf, we put them in front so that they really share the power they are.

And because they will be able to do this, it will speak to any, I used to talk to some people, when they are trying to be very funny with these explanations, etcetera, of how it is slow? It's very dadada... I ask them, do you have a grandchild? And they say, Yes, I do. Really? So tonight, when you go back home, please look into the eyes of your granddaughter. And you imagine if for any reason, someone would abuse your granddaughter, what would you do? Of course, you will change everything, you'll turn everything, you would be even taken to think in the point of, it's like, I'm going to strangle this person. Why? Because it is your granddaughter. So please remember, every girl, in our families, in this continent, all over the world, as Michelle was quite rightly saying that it's a global phenomenon. Every girl, is your granddaughter, take her, value her, fight for her most importantly, fight for her exactly the same way you would be fighting for the one who is your blood.

We don't manage enough. That's why I'm bringing the issue of giving opportunity. We don't manage enough to create this empathy. And this empathy is when we get people to move. That's why we are moving because every day we are working on this. You go home, sometimes you can't sleep because you are looking into the eyes of this child. You can't, if you take it that way, as activists and transform adolescents, as activists of their own cause, yes, we'll move much more faster.


We'll have to move faster. And then they'll come with this idea of, oh, no, it will take a 300 years, 100 so so so years before you do the transformation, we have to vow here, all of us, we have to vow, it has to take a generation. It's not, nothing of the 100 years, 300 years, when I say a generation, what does it mean? When I started to be involved on this, you know, really to be aware of the issues of girls and women, I was 29. I was 29. And it took a long time for us to get to this movement. Now, we are talking. So you have the responsibility, give yourself, it has to be in your generation, in your generation, not the two generations of mine.

I mentioned my daughters, and it has to be in your generation. So yes, we multiply the way we have to do our work, we have to join efforts with those who can provide resources. Today we have technology which can help us to communicate better. My daughter there from Malawi was saying they are covering 4 million. If one organisation can cover 4 million people. All of us together how many million we can we just that's the important and value of learning here.

Because each one of you have to go back and say I have to have my own millions. My own millions, it's not enough to be have a small group you are working with. How do you get it, you have to find for yourself. I'm talking too loud and too long. But what I want to say is one fix my words, invest in girls and adolescents, you will break the cycle of all poverties and all injustices. In fact, as I tried to say at the beginning. Second, you have now opportunities and tools which can accelerate this. So be much more ambitious. Don't come again and speak to me and say oh no, I'm working with 500 girls. It's 5,000 girls.

No, no, no, no, that's not good enough. That's not good enough.

Because you have to have a sense of urgency, one, and at the same time you have to really have ambitious targets in your organisation and all of us here. We have to make that pledge. It has to be in one generation, it can be done. If I can give just a very quick example. You know, I used for instance, I used the example of South Korea. South Korea after the war, it was a very poor country. And it was not only poor, but it doesn't have I mean, the natural resources which we have here in Africa, but in 30 years, because they invested in education again, coming back to you. They invested in education seriously. Today, South Korea is present in each one of our homes here. It's LG, it's Samsung, you hear me? And it took one generation, it took 30 years to do this. More importantly, now from poor people who were receiving aid ... Now they are giving aid to us, in 30 years. And what I'm trying to say is that it's possible.

And as Madiba would say, "It sounds impossible, until it's done." Right? So I think my concern is to raise the ambition.

Michelle Obama, Girls Opportunity Alliance founder and former US First Lady
So let me add to that, while we're talking about being ambitious, because there are a lot of women in this room. And we need to be speaking to the men, there need to be more men in this room. Because currently, sadly, men are the ones in power all over the world. And until they're ... we start holding them accountable. If we want to be ambitious. Ambition begins with creating a sense of not just obligation, responsibility but this notion of duty and shame. Because men are the perpetrators of all that we're talking about. Yet again, and again, we hand them power. And we assume that they're going to take care of us. And oftentimes, they they demand it, they they want to be leaders of the household, they want to be leaders of the world, they want us to hand over our lives and obey. As is said in some households, you know, those are the vows that many of us are socialised to take.

Well if men, if men want that power, if men want to assume that role, then they have to also take on the responsibility of having the maturity and the decency to manage that responsibility, which means that they have to be in these rooms. And they have to be using their voices. And they have to be as passionate and more so because sadly, they still run the world. So it's difficult to be ambitious without men at the table and we have to have that same expectation of them. And as women here, many of us are attached in some way to a man. And in our households, in our agencies ... we have some power. So the question becomes how are we going to start to hold men accountable and bring them into the space so that they're being educated about this issue, and that we're looking in the eyes of leaders around the world who were empowered to implement and enact these laws yet, they're lagging, they're not pushing for enforcement. They don't set goals around these issues. That's got to be a part of the conversation. And we have to say that full throatedly and loudly, I expect more from the men in the world. If you want to have the power, then my expectation is take care of us, take care of us, take care of our daughters, protect us from you.

Redi Tlhabi, moderator
I'm getting goosebumps because I'm remembering one of the most progressive pieces of legislation against sexual violence in South Africa, the Sexual Offences Act. At some point, we had the highest number of women MPs in Africa. I think Rwanda has just overtaken us, we had the highest number of women MPs in the world. Yet that piece of legislation was the longest to pass through Parliament at that time. It took about eight years, do you all remember that? How much noise we made that the very bill that was proposed to make girls safe in a parliament full of women was go... So I'm saying this to support what Mrs. Obama is saying that sometimes we spend a lot of time describing the problem.

But we diminish our own authority and ability to make the change. That's all that I'm saying. I'll stop here. Let me go to Miss French-Gates, you've spoken so much about maternal mortality, speaking to like-minded people, if I went around the room and said, Do you think there's a link between child marriage and poor health outcomes for girls? I bet you everybody's gonna say yes, because they understand it. But perhaps in some families and communities where child marriage is the norm, and it is enabled, nobody's thinking, nobody's planting the seed that hold on, this thing has an impact on everything, education, health, and so on. Can you share how child marriage also represents a critical health issue for young women and adolescents? And how do we address that?

Melinda French Gates, co-founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
I definitely will. I want to just build on a point that was being made, though also about what we value in society. If you go back less than 20 years ago, the global health community, all we were measuring, really measuring about women was women's mortality, women's mortality, you remember this? We weren't talking about adolescent girls. It was as if we talked about young children, young girls and boys under the age of five. And then all of a sudden she's a woman and we look at her mortality, we might invest if she's lucky in maternal health. So shame on us as a community, and it took a lot of loud voices to even get girls, adolescent girls on the agenda. And why is this so incredibly important?

Because the link in child marriage is twofold.

One is you marry her early, she will be expected, and we heard this yesterday in Malawi, from all the girls we talked to, she will be expected to have a child right away, no matter what her age 13, 14, 12, 15 - she's not ready, her body's not ready. So she's one, more likely to die in childbirth, or have obstetric fistula, which then she's ostracised from the community, if she lives, if her hips are big enough, and she gives birth to that baby, guess what, the baby is more likely to be low birth weight, and stunted. So you are setting her and that child up into a continuous cycle of poverty. And so unfortunately, we've done a lot of surveying recently to try and really get at some of the social norms and attitudes around child marriages out in communities.

Because unless you understand the mindset, you're really not going to be able to help parents rethink this. And it's both the economic opportunity, they don't value the girls, so they sell her off. They say we're in poverty, we were starving. So let's sell the daughter. Like you said, I was thinking about this last night, why don't you sell the son, I mean, but also, they're worried about pregnancy. So sometimes they're worried about pregnancy, so they marry her off so she doesn't get pregnant before she's married. Or if she happens to get pregnant before she's married, my gosh, they want to marry off because of the stigma. Why don't we reverse it? And think about, okay, why don't we teach young girls about their bodies, about their reproduction, about what they're meant to be in society? You can't be what you can't see. That's why it's so powerful for Michelle to be out here telling her story, because you should have seen the girls at the school not surprisingly, they all want to be Michelle, right? They do. And they have aspirations, but unless we teach them about their bodies, and unless we offer them contraceptives, let them decide whether they can space the birth, when and whether to have a child. And we know from country after country, all over the world, there. There is not a single country on this planet that did not go from low to middle income without first offering contraceptives to young women. Once they do that women will delay pregnancy because they say: I want to stay in school, I want to go to university, I have dreams, and then I will have a child. And by the way, then I can afford to have a child. We have that right. And we just need to teach girls and make sure they know about their sexuality, their health, we keep them protected, so they can live their dreams and that literally lifts an entire economy up and into a middle class and eventually a high-income society. And I don't really know a country around the world that wouldn't like to be a high-income country.

Redi Tlhabi, moderator
Mrs. Clooney, you've told us about your work, about the accountability. You launched an initiative at your foundation called Waging Justice for Women. But I'm just thinking, what are some of the most impactful ways that we can employ right now to ensure that there is justice when it comes to child marriage? I'm thinking about it, at the most basic level that we are members of families, we are members of society. Before even these transgressions get to you get to the courts, they started somewhere, there's a genesis. So do we have a role to play? Can we do something?

Amal Clooney, human rights lawyer and co-founder of Clooney Foundation for Justice
Thank you. Yeah, we chose the verb waging purposefully because we want to make sure that everyone is aware that you have to wage justice, it doesn't just happen. If we all do nothing, it's not going to come about and even though in most places in the world, women's rights have improved, the arc of justice is bending, the arc of history is bending towards justice. In some places, it's not improving, ask a girl in Iran, in some places, it's going backwards, ask girls in Afghanistan, or indeed the United States. So we have to wage justice. And our tool at the foundation is the law. So with something like child marriage, we start by looking at what does the law say on paper, we were at a school yesterday, and they know treaty names, they know the names of pieces of legislation. It's not enough, but that's where it begins. And we look at the practices that are in place, and we see if there's a role for litigation and trying to change those that need reform. So just looking at the African Union, there's more than 40 states whose child marriage laws don't comply with international standards, even though the treaties are there. There's over 20 states in the African Union where a woman can't get divorced on the same basis as a man, so she's stuck. And we looked at also the impact of child marriage, which we know is the root cause of so many problems, whether it's health or increases the risk that the girl will be subjected to violence, it reduces her, obviously, educational and employment opportunities. And one of the things that we found was that in Tanzania, for example, as well as other countries, girls have been kicked out of schools for being pregnant or married, which by the way, impacts about a quarter of the adolescent girl population. And so we supported a case filed by a fantastic NGO called Equality Now, which was before the African Court of Human Rights, challenging Tanzania's policy of banning these girls from school. And since then, Tanzania has announced a U-turn on that policy, which then means a quarter of the population of girls can graduate from high school and all the employment opportunities that can flow from that are now there. So we look for opportunities to change laws or practices, where we can, in other places, it's about implementing laws that look good on paper. And that's very much what we all saw in Malawi over the last couple of days and Malawi's Constitution says girls and boys have to be 18. There are no exceptions. But if the girls in the villages don't know about this, what is the point? So one of our methods of increasing access to justice and awareness about good laws, is to have these legal aid clinics, mobile clinics. And we had one two days ago in Malawi in an area that we'd never reached before with the Women Lawyers Association of Malawi. And they'd never been a clinic on child marriage. And we basically had no idea if anybody was going to show up or what was going to happen. And I stood in a field with a microphone and 1,200 people came. And it was incredible. And then we sat and had one-on-one consultations with women, we said, here is what the law says. And if you need a lawyer for free to defend those rights, then here we are. And there's also a hotline number, 3081. Call us.

And what I love about it, it's so simple, like usually the best ideas are, but it's also inherently scalable. So now we found 12 hotspots, where child marriage rates are particularly high in Malawi, and we will hit each of them and then we'll grow. I had the pleasure of having a tea with Mama Machel earlier and she's such a charming advocate that now I think we're going to be working in Mozambique. We will keep scaling whenever we can. But one of the ways in which you wage justice in the same way as you wage war is you try to get great allies on board. And I can't imagine greater allies than the amazing women on this stage, and also the amazing local groups who we work with in every single country. There's no case that we work on where we're alone. We're always with local groups. We've got 10 fellows who are here in the audience today who are spread out around African legal organisations who we work with, they are fabulous. And I'm so proud of the work that we're already doing, in the last four months, they've already reached 1000s of women and we have legal clinics in Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone. And so one of my favourite sayings that I had in Malawi was 'Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable'. And I'm very happy to be a stick along with these sticks and all these amazing women that we've been meeting.

Redi Tlhabi, moderator
Oh, we nearly reaching the end. So I've got one final question. I don't think anybody's under any illusion about the enormity of the challenges we've spoken openly about that we know that. I want to know during those daunting moments, those difficult moments where you think, how do I get out of bed and make a difference? What gives you hope in the work that you do? In the work that you're doing all over the world? For women and girls, Miss French Gates, I'll start with you. What gives you hope?

Melinda French Gates, co-founder of the Gates Foundation
What gives me hope, is when I see progress, and you know to think Malawi has made progress on child marriage, they decrease child marriage 25% in 10 years. Is it enough? No. But is it progress? Yes. And what we saw the not just seeds, but the fields of what is being planted there in terms of in the communities and all the way up through the legal system. So much more to be done. But my gosh, it's there. And then what really gives me hope is the school in Malawi, when we run around, we each sat at a table with about a dozen girls. And the girls at my table, they wrote down what is it you want to be in life? Neurologist, cardiologist, biochemist, when I asked the girl why'd want to be a biochemist, she said because there are products being made in the world that could be made in Malawi that would help with climate change. And I thought she's exactly right. And one of them wanted to be a lawyer, one wanted to be a teacher. So I see this ingenuity in girls and boys across the continent. This continent, the median age is 19. When I go to Nairobi to a tech hub, and I see entrepreneurs creating new applications for the continent, or I go to Senegal, and I see women collecting rubber tires, and literally selling it to petrochemical companies, or creating playgrounds with rubber mats for kids. Or I'm here in South Africa, and I meet the youth and the ingenuity and the vibrancy that's there. I just think, oh my gosh, that is just an engine for hope.


And what we need to do and on some of my definitely dark days, I went home and cried after the first day in that school. I was so numb in the school because some of the girls were telling us how difficult the situation was that they had escaped with child marriage. And I went home and cried that night and finally kind of hit me, the numbness wears off. But then you wake up the next morning, you think what can I do? What can I do? I can invest, we as a foundation invest, we invest deeply and strongly in partners across this continent, who are changing this continent in multiple ways. I can also advocate to governments, I go in and out of prime minister and presidents' offices. And yes, they are almost all male, but they don't really get a choice, they are going to hear from me about if they made certain investments in other people how it's going to benefit the entire world, including their country. So I feel like it's my job to take these stories. And these lessons we learn out in Malawi or Mozambique or South Africa and try to take them to the global stage so other philanthropists will fund them, other governments will fund them, and that we will create the change with the innovation that's possible here on the continent through the youth.

Redi Tlhabi, moderator
Mrs. Obama, same question to you.

Michelle Obama, founder of the Girls' Opportunity Alliance and former US First Lady
Convenings like this, especially with the leaders of the grassroots organisations, people like Memory and Ulunda and Faith and all the other amazing folks out there who are on the ground, every day, trying to push this big, huge heavy rock up that steep hill. Part of what I want to make sure because when you're on the ground in the fight, you know, I know how lonely it can feel and one thing I also want us to remember is that the fighters, the war wagers, that they to get tired. And they need inspiration and they need encouragement and they need to be seen, I talked to so many activists that are struggling just in their own lives, you know, they are mothers, and they are as they're fighting for other people's girls, they're trying to make sure their own kids are straight, they need to look after their own health, physical and mental health. But I continue to be inspired by the fact that they can they get up every day, and they do the hard work of getting out there on the ground, and hearing the stories, and taking on the problems and the issues, and the challenges of every girl in their organisation, in their village. That is hard, exhausting work. And as funders and leaders out there, we do this work for the girls. But we also have to be mindful of the people who do the work. And as we think about funding and support, we have to be generous, because this is what keeps these folks going. Now folks aren't operating on just oxygen and air and hope, they need money and resources, they need health care, they need living wages, they need to be able to manage, they shouldn't have to spend their time begging for somebody with a lot of money to give them money to do this hard work. So I continue to be inspired by them, which is one of the reasons why through the Obama Foundation, that we are supporting these leaders, really trying to lift them up to provide them with additional network training, convening them together. Because a lot of times, you know, it's important for them to know each other, just so that they have some peers that they can connect to while they're doing the hard work. Sometimes it's just nice to know you're not alone. And and these kinds of rooms remind us all that we're here. And I want people to know that Mama Machel told me to remind people we're here, all of us here on the stage, on this continent, we're here for the girls, and we're here for you the leaders, we are here because of you. We're here so that the light we carry gets shone on you so that you do not feel alone in this and we're going to keep doing this kind of convening. We want to keep bringing us together just so that we can be reinvigorated and re-inspired and attended to, so that you have the reserves to go back in and fight the fight. But we see you and we are so grateful for what you're doing for our girls. So just keep up the fight.

Redi Tlhabi, moderator
Mrs. Clooney again, the same question what gives you hope in your work for women and girls, and Mama is gonna close for us.

Amal Clooney, human rights lawyer and co-founder Clooney Foundation for Justice
Thank you. Well, my name means hope. So I'm, I have to be an optimist. Oh, I see Albie. Albie gives me hope! (Editor's note: Justice Albie Sachs is a distinguished lawyer, judge, activist, scholar and author) It's, I mean, if I had to choose one thing, I would say it's the next generation. Because I teach at a law school. I'm now working with all these amazing young lawyers across the continent and across the world. And I see a generation of young people who know about these issues, they care about these issues, and they're determined to be agents of change. And I think our generation hasn't done such a great job on many of these issues. In my field, we haven't still, all these decades after the Holocaust figured out a way to prevent mass slaughter or even bring people to justice for being responsible for it. So we have such a long way to go but when I'm with young people and when I see how determined they are and not cynical because when I am in these halls of power like the UN Security Council or in a president's office and rooms that used to feel intimidating, what I feel is cynicism and apathy, and I where I see power and courage is in young activists and many of the young women that I've met here as well. So that definitely gives me hope.

Redi Tlhabi, moderator
I was thinking about that word cynicism. And I remember something that I read that it's actually the easy way out, because then you don't have to do anything. If you send a call about something, whether it's voting or taking care of, of the Constitution, communities, girls, if you are cynical, you get to sleep and not be bothered, because that's the excuse to not do anything. So let's guard against that. And the final word to you, Mama, what gives you hope, in the work that you do with girls.

Graca Machel, Activist
Well I think it has already been shared here that all of us, what gives us hope is that no matter how difficult, is because we have embraced in terms of transforming society, that transformation is happening. And that is extremely important. It's slow, it's difficult. A transformation is happening. Let me share a story. The organisation I'm chairing in Mozambique, I helped to fund, we do have a programme which is covering about 1,3 million girls. And sometimes not us alone. But with a consortium, we bring these girls together, just to empower them to feel that, again, they are not alone. There are many, that they can make it, really to build a movement around them. And you have to convene, you have to give them space to share. I'm sitting here listening to them and one girl said, I came to a point where I believe, my body, my territory, my choice. I said, say it again. And she repeated this. So I started by saying that I'm sitting with a generation of young women here, I'm sitting with a generation, I listened to a generation of my grand daughters, that one she should be 12 or 13, she is an adolescent. When you listen, in Mozambique, where we have one of the highest rates of child marriage in the continent, and in fact, we are 10th in the world. When you sit there and you hear a child telling you, my body, my territory, and my choice. I have to tell you, it has been, again and again, in my mind to remember. Yes, it is very difficult. But transformation, I'm not saying change. And I mean it, because you don't change things in society, you transform society. That's how I believe at least transformation is happening. It is slow, it is hard, but it is happening. So it gives you the confidence to say I have to invest as much as I can. While I still have energy because I know that it will come the time where I will not have as much energy as I have. And my responsibility now is exactly to inspire different generations I come across, to take up, then I will be in peace in my mind and my consciousness. There is no way back. There is no way back. It is happened. It has to happen first, as I said at the beginning, it has to happen well, but there is no way back. This is what keeps me going.


Redi Tlhabi, moderator
Okay, so we didn't just come to an event, right? We came to think, we came to bring our hearts and our minds and we came to meet a network of brothers and sisters. And we now know that we are challenged to change things in our generation. So much has been given to us, so much is there for us to grab as we go forward with the work. And we're not diminishing the seriousness of it. But we have seen the change, we have tasted your courage. And we have sat today with allies. I want to conclude with a quote from an anonymous soldier who died in World War One and it is written by an anonymous soldier, I'm paraphrasing, but it is telling those who survived this war that go forth, build the world and tell the younger generation that for their tomorrow, we gave up our today. Okay, so when I think about that, it's not giving up as in drawing your last breath. People sacrifice and give, in so many ways. We just need to awaken our imagination, to be creative, to be innovative, but the word that resonates and that you used is empathy. But empathy without action has no meaning. We don't have any other country, we don't have any other world, we don't have any other continent. Let's go forth and do the work, thank you.


Last October, Mrs. Obama, Ms. French Gates, and Mrs. Clooney announced a collaboration between their respective organizations to advance gender equality and end child marriage—helping girls overcome barriers they face in their communities in order to reach their full potential. As part of their collaboration, the three gender equality champions committed to:

  • Supporting champions and organizations that are working to end child marriage and advance gender equality.
  • Engaging in joint advocacy on shared priorities to support young women's empowerment, working to overcome the barriers they face to achieving their full potential.
  • Working together to scale and expand each organization's programming globally, to support emerging leaders and grassroots organizations worldwide and ensure that no girls are left behind.
  • Building on the Clooney Foundation's work to strengthen the next generation of gender justice champions in Africa through fellowships, challenge discriminatory laws through the courts, and increase women's access to justice through a network of 'women for women' legal aid clinics.
  • Growing the Girls Opportunity Alliance Network and Fund and its capacity to support additional community-based organizations that are working to break down the barriers that adolescent girls face around the world.
  • Building from new evidence and insights, including those generated by partners through the Child Marriage Learning Partners Consortium, on what is needed to enable girls to thrive.
  • Supporting the grassroots groups and advocates who have worked tirelessly for decades to end child marriage, like Girls Not Brides and the Girls First Fund.

In March of this year, three prominent organizations dedicated to ending child marriage—Girls Not Brides:The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage, Girls First Fund, and VOW for Girls—formally joined forces with the Clooney Foundation for Justice, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Obama Foundation's Girls Opportunity Alliance to champion initiatives that will help end child marriage by working with and supporting girl- and community-led groups, striving to eliminate barriers for girls worldwide.

The Girls Opportunity Alliance , a program of the Obama Foundation, seeks to empower adolescent girls around the world through education, allowing them to achieve their full potential and transform their families, communities, and countries. Its goal is to use its platform to convene leaders, lift up other organizations, and use high-profile public awareness to drive action on adolescent girls' education. Since 2018, the Girls Opportunity Alliance has supported more than 70 grassroots projects for girls' education in 26 countries like Malawi, India, Cambodia, and Peru. These projects include providing scholarships for girls education in Malawi, building computer labs in Kenya and learning centers in Peru, and supporting mentorship programs in Cambodia and India that empower girls both in and out of the classroom.

The Clooney Foundation for Justice was established by Amal and George Clooney to wage justice for human rights by providing free legal support to persecuted communities in over 40 countries around the world. Amal Clooney, a barrister with two decades of experience defending victims of human rights abuses, founded the Waging Justice for Womeninitiative in 2022. The initiative aims to fight injustice against women and girls through strategic litigation to reform discriminatory laws and increase accountability for gender-based abuse. Through this initiative, the Clooney Foundation works with local partners to help women and girls in Africa claim their rights in court –their right to go to school, be safe from violence, escape child marriage and have equal rights to property. It is investing in next-generation gender justice champions through a fellowship program for young lawyers across Africa. And it is increasing access to justice by establishing mobile women-for-women legal aid clinics: so that women know their rights and have lawyers who can help to enforce them.

Guided by the belief that every life has equal value, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation works to help all people lead healthy, productive lives. In developing countries, it focuses on improving people's health and giving them the chance to lift themselves out of hunger and extreme poverty. In the United States, it seeks to ensure that all people—especially those with the fewest resources—have access to the opportunities they need to succeed in school and life. Based in Seattle, Washington, the foundation is led by CEO Mark Suzman, under the direction of Co-chairs Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates and the board of trustees.

The Graça Machel Trust was established to amplify women's voices, influence governance, promote women's leadership in the economic, and social development of Africa, and advocate for protecting adolescent girls' rights and dignity. Our work is built upon the passion and legacy of our Founder, Mrs. Graça Machel, a stateswoman, former liberation fighter, global champion, and renowned international advocate. Our approach mirrors the strategies she has employed throughout her life - mobilizing collective action through vibrant networks and strategic partnerships. We have achieved collective impact by collaborating with women's networks across 18 African countries. Underpinning our work is the conviction that the development of the African continent hinges on the sustained and equitable participation of women in socio-economic spheres at all levels, and Africa's human capital lies in its children and adolescents

Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage is a civil society partnership of 1,400 member organisations in over 100 countries committed to working together to end child marriage. At the heart of their work is a desire to transform girls' lives through supporting and representing their diverse member organisations and mobilising the vast potential of their collective expertise and power. Over the last decade, Girls Not Brides has been at the forefront of ending child marriage worldwide, playing a leadership role in bringing the issue to the attention of the global community and growing a strong, diverse, and connected movement to address it. Girls Not Brides supports civil society partnerships and coalitions at the national and sub-national level to act together and deliver national-level change, ensuring that child marriage is a political and financial priority in high-prevalence countries and in the global community. They also galvanise their global membership for collective advocacy and action, and leverage learning and evidence to drive progress towards child, early and forced marriages and unions.

The Girls First Fund (GFF) is a donor collaborative supported by leading philanthropic organizations and individual philanthropists who have come together to champion community-led efforts to end child marriage and increase gender equality by 2030. GFF was established to fill a critical gap in funding to local actors, with priority being given to women-led and girl-centered national and community-based organizations striving to prevent child marriage. The collaborative is intentional about providing core, flexible and long-term resources to organizations that are a chronically underfunded component of the ecosystem, to drive their vision and enact long term change. The role of the donor collaborative is to unlock new resources and offer funders a reliable mechanism to support community-led efforts. The collaborative also provides a safe space for learning and documenting how and in what ways CBOs achieve change.

VOW for Girls champions girls—the girls around the world without the rights, resources, and the choice to decide their own futures. VOW for Girls channels the positive power of celebrations—weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, and beyond— to bring people together and change the future of girls everywhere. Through these celebrations, they're amplifying awareness and raising funds for local leaders and organizations worldwide who are working to end the causes of child marriage in their communities. This unlocks opportunities for every girl by expanding her access to education, building a stronger local community, and propelling global gender equity forward.

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