Northern Ethiopia can be an unforgiving place to live. Despite great natural beauty and rich culture, the region has over time endured poverty, periodic famines and outbreaks of warfare. But of all that she witnessed on her early visits to the country, there was one encounter especially that Mabel van Oranje will never forget.
We went to meet a group of girls who’d been married off as children, she says.
At that time, something like 80% of all girls in Northern Ethiopia were brides before the age of 18. I asked the girl next to me how old she was when she’d gotten married. Most girls there don’t know their age because they don’t have birth certificates. This girl thought that she had been between five and seven.
The feeling that Mabel experienced while hearing this was intense.
It was as if I couldn’t breathe, she recalls.
My own daughters were five and six at that time. I realized that if they had been born in that region, they could easily have gone through the same as this girl by my side.
The purpose of Mabel’s visit to Ethiopia was to educate herself about child marriage. She already knew that the practice was widespread, having been shocked to learn it affects 12 million girls globally every year. But this personal encounter left a deep impression on her.
A serial entrepreneur for social change – see Mabel van Oranje: My life – she was then serving as first CEO of The Elders, a unique organization conceived by Nelson Mandela. Made up of some of the world’s most distinguished statesmen and stateswomen – including Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter and Archbishop Desmond Tutu – the group’s founding mission was to work together for peace, justice and human rights.
The Elders had spent a couple of years deliberating how best to deploy their moral authority, amazing access and tremendous experience, recalls Mabel.
One decision of these incredibly eminent individuals in 2009 was to address gender inequality, perhaps the biggest injustice of the 21st century. I realized that we couldn’t just talk in abstract terms here but needed to address something concrete.
Ending child marriage seemed an especially compelling cause. Despite its prevalence, this practice was out of sight and out of mind for most people in the world. The typical child bride was – and remains – an adolescent girl in an economically marginalized community with little or no education living in remote parts of a developing country.
These girls have little to no space to voice their opinions, let alone to self-organize and draw attention to their plight, says Mabel.
As a result, child marriage was like a forgotten issue. These girls were invisible.
Given their immense standing, The Elders were uniquely positioned to help put the issue on the public agenda. And they too were initially taken aback when they learned of the extent of child marriage.
I remember the day when I spoke with Archbishop Tutu about the issue. Like most people, he wasn’t aware that there were some six hundred and fifty million women globally who’d been married as girls, says Mabel.
But once he realized the size and global nature of the problem and its negative implications for humanity, he declared that from then on, he would work to end child marriage with the same determination with which he worked to end apartheid. And that’s exactly what he did, right until the end of his life.
While a human rights violation, child marriage begets many other ills. Upon marriage, young girls’ schooling often ends abruptly, assuming they were receiving any in the first place, which perpetuates poverty. Likewise, child brides are much more likely to face mental and physical health risks, including complications during childbirth.
I’ve met countless girls who explained to me how their lives changed for the worse, recounts Mabel.
Their stories are heartbreaking. I remember the girl who described her wedding day as the day she had to leave school. Or the many girls who didn’t know what sex was, but when boys in their village interfered with them, they fell pregnant and had to leave school.
For others, it might be the trauma of suddenly becoming the de facto housewife in the family of an unknown, older man."
Despite its prevalence worldwide, the triggers for child marriage vary. Most often, parents believe they are acting in their daughters’ best interests by finding them a husband. Marrying a girl off can be seen as a way of preserving hers and her family’s honor. While poverty is a recurrent feature, child marriage is rooted in gender inequality and the resulting restrictions upon girls’ freedom of choice.
Child marriage is rooted in gender inequality. Most often, parents believe they are acting in their daughters’ best interests by finding them a husband.
The Elders’ advocacy was critical in raising desperately needed awareness of this often overlooked issue. However, Mabel also recognized that local organizations are best positioned to support girls to avoid becoming child brides but have largely been left out of global philanthropy.
We all know that real change happens at the community level, in the lives of the girls and their families. Yet, most community-based organizations working to support girls don’t have access to adequate funding, and donors often don’t know how to find them.
Never afraid of a challenge, Mabel began to explore how to connect philanthropic support to locally led development efforts. A moment of inspiration then came one day while scouring the online wedding registry of some friends whose big day was at hand. Aside from the usual suggestions of household gifts, the couple had offered guests the option to donate to their favorite charity.
It was a lightbulb moment, enthuses Mabel.
I said to myself: what if we could mobilize the global wedding industry?
Mabel’s inspiration resulted in the creation of VOW for Girls, launching on the International Day of the Girl in 2018. This global initiative –
VOW for short – seeks to raise vital awareness and funding in a simple but poignant way.
Around the world, something like $400 billion a year is spent on weddings. So, I thought to myself if only we could capture a tiny fraction of that, we could achieve vital change for girls in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
To this end, VOW establishes partnerships with wedding-related brands such as jewelers and bridal designers that create products and experiences which benefit VOW. Engaged couples and those celebrating anniversaries or other moments of commitment can request donations instead of or in addition to gifts, or donate themselves to VOW in honor of their guests.
Involvement from couples is really taking off, observes Mabel.
We see a powerful trend where people don’t just aspire to a perfect wedding, which is what the bride and groom have wanted in the past. They now also want a meaningful wedding, and helping VOW provides even more meaning in a very real way. So far, more than 8,000 couples have lent their support. And we’re expecting the first celebrity VOW wedding before long.
The organization’s latest initiative is building a network of global wedding professionals called VOW Pro.
In the US, you typically have more than ten professionals involved in each wedding, from planners to cakemakers to photographers to venue owners to entertainers and so on, says Mabel.
They are ideally positioned to act as ambassadors for the cause and also help generate funding. VOW Pro already has members in 29 countries around the world, who lend their platforms and businesses to amplify VOW’s mission to their clients.
All the funds generated from VOW’s initiatives go directly to on-the-ground projects working to end child marriage.
We are fortunate to be able to pass on 100% of what we raise, thanks to a few generous philanthropists who cover our operating costs, says Mabel.
That means we can achieve maximum impact at the grassroots level.
We can all make a difference, but no one can do it alone.
Currently, VOW supports efforts in six countries across three continents: Democratic Republic of Congo, the Dominican Republic, India, Nepal, Niger and Uganda. In each case, VOW works entirely through local partners. This reflects the philosophy of
decolonized aid: rather than imposing solutions from Western capitals, communities in emerging countries are empowered to make change in the ways they think best.
We call for proposals from local people in their own languages, asking them how they would address the issue, explains Mabel.
In some cases, the subsequent work raises awareness among parents and communities about the harms of child marriage. In others, it’s about helping the girls to realize their rights and ensuring that they have alternatives to marriage, such as education or jobs. We also support advocacy efforts to ensure that laws get enforced.
To date, VOW has supported a network of 177 grantees whose work has directly impacted more than a quarter of a million girls. The vast majority of grants go to programs led by women, many of whom themselves have been able to escape or avoid child marriage. There are after-school programs for young girls in Uganda and a women-run boarding school in India that stress building students’ confidence through extracurricular activities such as acting, debating and sports.
While there is much more work to be done, VOW is committed to helping end child marriage within our lifetime. And Mabel is clear about how this may come about:
I always ask the girls and adolescents whom I meet what they want for their children. And the answer is almost always the same. They want proper schooling for them and the freedom for their daughters to marry who and when they want. I’m convinced if we can keep this generation of girls out of child marriage, we’ll reach the tipping point from which there’s no way back.
VOW is essentially a start-up organization, and start-ups are hard work, Mabel admits.
We need all the support that people are willing to give. For anyone who is searching for a meaningful wedding gift idea, helping to organize a wedding or preparing to mark however many years of happy marriage, VOW offers an answer. It provides a wonderful opportunity for a couple who are about to say ‘I do’ of their own free will to empower girls elsewhere to say ‘I don’t.
Mabel van Oranje - My life
I was born and raised in the Netherlands. I come from a modest, middle-class family and we lived an ordinary Dutch life. At an early age, I became aware that a lot of what I took for granted was actually far from normal in other parts of the world: education, healthcare, good infrastructure and so on. My father frequently traveled for work to Latin America, and he would return with stories of the poverty he had witnessed there. I came to understand that if I’d happened to have been born elsewhere, my life might have been very different.
When I was only nine, my father unexpectedly died. Losing him made me appreciate how fragile and precious life is. My mother was very engaged in our community and did all sorts of not-for-profit work. With such influences, I decided as a child that I wanted to do something meaningful with my life. And for me, that boils down to fighting for justice and equality. I strongly believe that where someone is born shouldn’t determine their destiny; we should all have equal opportunities.
When I left school, I decided to study economics and political science at university. During my studies, I did various overseas internships, not just to find out what career I might pursue but also to experience different cultures. I had fascinating experiences in Mexico, Spain and Malaysia with various multinationals and banks. It also made me realize that working in those sectors, while interesting, wasn’t for me.
I subsequently interned at the United Nations in New York. It was the early 1990s and the war in Bosnia was raging. I was horrified by the blood-shed and what I saw as the slow international response. There were some inspirational figures from around Europe speaking out, but as individuals rather than in concert. In the US, however, there was a group of eminent Republicans and Democrats working together to persuade the Clinton administration to intervene and stop the genocide. I thought that we ought to have a similar initiative in Europe and that’s kind of how it all started.
Since I was just 25, I knew that I could only succeed by working with others. I was introduced to Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, who had been UN High Commissioner for Refugees. He was a highly principled and respected man. He became Board Chair of the European Action Council for Peace in the Balkans, an advocacy group which I co-founded and led. We brought together some 25 influential Europeans who encouraged their govern-ments to do more to advance peace. At that time, I also helped to create War Child Netherlands, part of the international effort to secure a better future for children whose lives are wrecked by armed conflict.
After peace of sorts in Bosnia, I joined Open Society Foundations, the philanthropic organization established by George Soros. I had worked with them in the Balkans on a variety of initiatives, including an effort to relaunch English, German and French language education in Bosnia. They liked the way I tried to amplify support for causes and asked me to set up their Western Europe office in Brussels. During my tenure, I did a ton of interesting work in relation to issues like universal education, HIV/AIDS, natural resource transparency, independent media and Turkey’s potential accession to the European Union. I then moved to London where I became the Open Society Foundations’ International Advocacy Director, helping coordinate all of our advocacy initiatives seeking policy change.
The Elders was a concept that inherently appealed to me. Nelson Mandela had founded the group by assembling other independent global leaders to work together toward peace and human rights. I applied to become their first CEO and got the job. Some of them knew each other well but others not at all. It was a bit like working with an all-star sports team. As you can imagine, getting 11 amazing individuals to operate as a team doesn’t happen overnight. And there are so many causes worthy of their attention.
Nowadays, I continue my work as an activist through a variety of roles. Sometimes these roles are more formal, as a board member or board chair. In other cases, I support change initiatives or fellow activists informally by brainstorming, giving strategic advice or making useful introductions. When I see an opportunity for change, I find it hard to sit still or say ‘no’.
I firmly believe that if you want to make change happen, you have to join forces. We can all make a difference, but no one can do it alone. Throughout my career, I have thus worked as a matchmaker, bringing different individuals, organizations, strategic ideas and donor funding together to pursue specific goals. These ‘magical coalitions’ as I call them can make things happen that others thought were impossible. You don’t always have to lead visibly or from the front. Drivers of change often work behind the scenes and let others have the limelight.
Having been professionally active for almost three decades and having done so many different things, I guess the common thread is my urge to act when I see injustice, helping to drive change. In all that I do, I try to be results-oriented. My ambition is to put myself out of all the jobs that I do, so I can then retire with the world as it should be: peaceful, just, equal and with opportunities for all.