I'm excited to be at the Skoll World Forum this week, to meet and learn from many remarkable people. I am particularly thrilled that Girls Not Brides has been chosen as one of the recipients of the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship. It is clear recognition that, at Skoll, achieving change through partnership is really valued.
When you speak to those participating in the Forum, it's clear that most are here because they have at some point in their life been inspired by a story, stories of courageous people who have achieved the impossible.
I joined Girls Not Brides in 2012 inspired by the story of Laxmi Sargara, an 18 year-old girl from Rajasthan, India. Laxmi was married when she was just one year old, to a boy named Rakesh who himself was only three. She knew nothing of this betrothal until the moment, 17 years later, when her parents announced that the time had come to leave home and live with her husband. Laxmi was upset because she did not want a future that was not of her own choosing.
Laxmi's story stands out for me, not only because she has the same name as me, but because she did something remarkable. In what is thought to be the first case of its kind in India, Laxmi turned to the courts and had her marriage annulled. Laxmi is a disruptive woman who was brave enough to stand up against a centuries-old tradition, determined to build a brighter future for herself.
I would describe Girls Not Brides as a partnership of disruptors: men and women like Laxmi who have come together to raise their collective voice against child marriage, a practice that devastates the lives of 14 million girls every year. Girls Not Brides has now grown to more than 300 civil society organisations working in over 50 countries to enable girls to avoid child marriage and fulfil their potential.
Marriage can devastate the lives of child brides: they tend to drop out of school, are more likely to suffer violence within marriage and to describe their first sexual experience as forced. They often become pregnant before they are physically or emotionally ready to bear children: girls who give birth before 15 are five times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than women aged 20 to 24.
However, for many parents, marrying off their daughters can seem like the only choice available. Our challenge as a movement and as a global community, therefore, is to create change so that parents don't feel that child marriage is the only way that they can ensure the future of the daughters they love.
At Girls Not Brides we are looking to do this through partnership. Together we mobilise the political will and financial support to ensure that laws and programmes are in place that mean girls have other options to marriage: education, opportunities to earn an income, healthcare services that address the unique needs of adolescent girls. Another advantage is the opportunity to build a community of practice, learning from the experiences of others, and to understand what is and what isn't working in our efforts to ensure a brighter future for girls.
Many of our members are from the communities where child marriage is common, and work tirelessly to change attitudes towards the practice. They have faced resistance, hostility and in some cases outright threats to their personal safety. For them, another merit of partnership can also be invaluable: when you know you're not the only one trying to do this work, it does bring strength.
There are challenges to working in partnership too. As Girls Not Brides grows we are continuously learning how to connect and sustain a movement anchored in some of the most hard to reach areas of the world, from rural Niger to the mountains of Afghanistan.
More and more people are realising that, if we are to effectively tackle some of the most complex problems in the world - whether those are malnutrition or a lack of water and sanitation or a lack of finance and opportunity for the marginalised, or indeed child marriage - we need to work together. The Skoll World Forum is full of social entrepreneurs who are grappling with these types of challenges. I'm looking forward to brainstorming with them so that we all become more effective in our respective efforts.
Girls like Laxmi can't change a tradition like child marriage on their own. It is up to us as a global community to stand by them.