NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India's development is being slowed by discriminatory practices against women such as child marriage, which stifle their potential to contribute to growth, South African peace campaigner Archbishop Desmond Tutu said.
"India is doing fantastically. I mean they are complaining about seven percent GDP growth. Imagine if you then enlisted the participation of 50 percent of the population. Women. Imagine what it would be," Tutu told Reuters late Wednesday.
"I think that India is poised to become a very significant player but, that role would be greatly, greatly enhanced, when women are given their proper place."
Tutu, 80, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for speaking out against white minority rule in South Africa.
Now, as chairman of The Elders -- a group of prominent people dedicated to addressing humanitarian issues -- he is spearheading a global movement called "Girls Not Brides" aimed at ending child marriage.
Gender experts say a girl under the age of 18 is married every three seconds -- that's 10 million each year -- often without consent and sometimes to a much older man, before she is mentally or sexually ready for such a relationship.
The practice is most prevalent in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, despite laws in most countries banning it.
In a rapidly modernizing country, tightly bound by traditional patriarchal views, Indian women face a plethora of threats from sexual violence, dowry murders, discrimination in health, education and land rights as well as child marriage.
A staggering 47 percent of women in India between the ages of 20 and 24 married before the legal age of 18, according the government's latest National Family Health Survey.
Tutu -- who is in India with some of the other Elders, which includes former Irish President Mary Robinson and Gro Harlem Brundtland, who was Norway's first prime minister -- said it was imperative to address the issue as it was linked to development.
"It's been shown that where child marriage is in vogue, six of the eight millennium development goals, you can forget about," he said referring to a string of goals 192 U.N. members agreed to implement by 2015.
The goals include reducing child and maternal mortality, ending poverty and hunger, providing universal education, gender equality and combating HIV/AIDS.
"You can forget obviously gender equality. You can forget about education because a girl leaves school when she gets married and you can forget about reducing poverty as she is hardly likely to earn a great deal with no education."
Child marriage also threatens the health of a young mother, he said, adding that a girl giving birth at 15 is five times more likely to die in the process than a girl of 19 or older. While her infant is 60 percent more likely to die.
He said girls, who were often married to older men, had little control over their sex lives and were more likely to be infected by HIV/AIDS.
Tutu, who has campaigned on issues from human rights to fighting AIDS and homophobia, said ending discriminatory practices, giving women an equal voice and empowering them, would help countries realize their full potential.
"As women are set free, we discover, hey, this is a resource that we had allowed to lie fallow."
(Editing by Robert Birsel)
[Image via Shutterstock.com.]
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