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Revisiting the Cultural Values of the EU’s Founding Fathers

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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If the religious and Christian substratum of this continent is marginalized in its role as inspiration of ethical and social efficacy, we would be negating not only the past heritage of Europe but a future worthy of European man—and by that I mean every European Man, be he a believer or a non believer.”–John-Paul II to the European Parliament on 11 October 1988.

In the perilous and turbulent times in which we live, on both sides of the Atlantic, perhaps the time is ripe to revisit the origins of the European Union, its ideals and its vision, as expressed by its founding fathers.

There is a fashionable popular notion, both in and out of academia, that the polity that constitutes the EU was conceived by its founding fathers as a very lose trading confederation for the sole purpose of avoiding a third world war and insure material progress and prosperity to the continent of Europe. It was, in other words a mere project for peace and prosperity requiring little surrender of nationalism and sovereignty but later it was misguidedly transformed into a mega-nation and the quest for political military power to better be able to confront other economic-military giants such as the US, China, Russia, India. Nothing wrong with the hope and the quest for perpetual peace and prosperity brought about by a robust economy, which in some way has been partly fulfilled. But the question arises: is this narrative tenable?

Perhaps the best way to answer this thorny issue of the original identity of the EU is by focusing on the thought of four of the EU founding fathers, namely French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman, West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, Italian Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi, and Jean Monnet. We shall endeavor to determine if the above described rather mercantile notion is tenable or if, to the contrary, those founding fathers, all endowed with great political realism and vision, wished to give a soul to Europe by which to reclaim its heritage and recognize itself. This article is a schematic outline of the issue as developed over a decade and then published in three books on the EU: A New Europe in Search of its Soul (2005), Europe Beyond the Euro (2012, available for free in Ovi magazine bookstore) and Europa: an Idea and a Journey (2012).

As we examine the lives of those three founding EU fathers, let us keep in mind the rich symbolism of the simple historical fact that in 1951, before beginning the delicate negotiations leading to the adoption of the Treaty of Paris, those founding fathers met in a Benedictine monastery on the Rhine for meditation and prayer. St. Benedict, who established the first monastery in Western Europe at Monte Cassino, is in fact the patron saint of the whole continent of Europe. It was Schuman who once quipped “I never feel so European as when I enter a cathedral.”

But before we get ahead of ourselves let’s back pedal to 1940 when Schuman was arrested for acts of resistance and protestation at Nazi methods. He was interrogated by the Gestapo. Thanks to an honorable German he was saved from being sent to Dachau. Transferred as a personal prisoner of the vicious Nazi Gauleiter Joseph Buerckel, he escaped in 1942 and joined the French Resistance. After the war Schuman rose to great prominence. He was Minister of Finance, then briefly Prime Minister from 1947–1948 becoming Foreign Minister in the latter year. On May 9, 1950, seeking to remove the main causes of post-war Franco-German tension and adopting a scheme of Jean Monnet, Schuman invited the Germans to jointly manage their coal and steel industries. This formed the basis of the European Coal and Steel Community, which eventually evolved into the European Union. This became known as the Schuman Declaration, and to this day May 9 is designated Europe Day.

Schuman later served as Minister of Justice and first President of the European Parliamentary Assembly which bestowed on him by acclamation the title ‘Father of Europe’. The other who received the same honor was Jean Monnet. Celibate, modest and un-ostentatious, Schuman was an intensely religious man and was strongly influenced by the writings of Pope Pius XII, St. Thomas Aquinas and Jacques Maritain. He is presently a candidate for canonization or elevation to sainthood; a move beyond his striking personal qualities.

His vision for a united Europe was rooted not only in his experiences of two horrific world wars but in his faith and the social teaching of the Catholic Church. The new community was intended to be built on co-operation rather than cut-throat capitalistic entrepreneurial competition; one of the aims of the much-derided Common Agricultural Policy was to help the poorest agricultural workers in Europe; the key concepts from Catholic teaching of solidarity and subsidiarity are also written into European structures. Of course things often have not worked well: but much of this has been to do with rivalry among European nation states, the persistence of an ugly xenophobic type of super-nationalism misguidedly parading as patriotism. It was this kind of rivalry that Schuman and the other founding fathers of the new Europe wanted to eliminate.

In the 92 years since Italy had became united, it had had for Premiers one Protestant, one Jew, several agnostics and several Freemasons, but never a practicing Catholic, until Alcide de Gasperi took office. Not until the birth (in 1910) of the political party now led by Alcide de Gasperi were Catholics of modern Italy free to participate in politics. This was due mainly to the estrangement between the newly formed Italy and the Vatican which felt that the new polity had usurped its temporal holdings in central Italy. At the end of World War I however, a scholarly Sicilian priest named Luigi Sturzo persuaded Pope Benedict XV to let him form a political party of Catholic laymen. Don Luigi promised his followers that he would resolutely avoid church control, and he kept his promise. Don Luigi Sturzo’s creation, the Popular Party, set out to bring Christian morality and principles into distinctly non-Christian Italian politics—”a center party of Christian inspiration and oriented toward the left,” he called it. In some way Don Sturzo can also be considered a founding father of the EU. Among his early and most promising recruits was a somber man named Alcide de Gasperi.

Like Schuman, De Gasperi came from a border region between Italy and Austria that experienced particularly acute suffering during the wars in Europe. This experience marked him for life, and his suffering helped him to form the conviction that: ‘the lesson that all Europeans can learn from their tumultuous past is that the future will not be built through force, nor through a desire to conquer, but by the patient application of the democratic method, the constructive spirit of agreement, and by respect for freedom.

His commitment to Europe was also rooted in his deep faith and guiding principles. A committed Christian, he opposed all forms of totalitarianism. As Chairman of the parliamentary group of the Italian People’s Party, he opposed the rise of the fascist party. In 1927 he was imprisoned for his participation in the Aventin movement. Sentenced to four years in jail, he was released after sixteen months when the Church intervened, but was then forced to withdraw from political life for fifteen years, and worked as a junior employee in the Vatican library. But from 1943 he was to occupy various ministerial positions, and continued to oppose unceasingly the powerful Italian Communist Party.

De Gasperi responded immediately to Schuman’s call, and worked closely with the latter and with Konrad Adenauer. The key to Adenauer’s conception of Christian democracy was the belief that democracy must be based on a “weltanschauung” – a worldview – that provides a complete account of the universe, man, and politics. Adenauer realized that part of the appeal of totalitarianism was the promise of a complete worldview, in contrast to democracy which was seen as a formal procedure that was neutral about outcomes or that simply managed the clash of competing interests. While communism and fascism offered complete worldviews, they were based on “atheistic materialism” which Adenauer steadfastly opposed for reducing the individual to a mere automaton of the state. As he saw it, politics was the struggle between competing weltanschauungen; and democracy could be firmly established in Germany only by possessing a worldview that could compete successfully with Marxism and Nazism. What it needed was a spiritual worldview to replace atheistic materialism and to prevent its own degeneration into egoistic materialism and social Darwinism a la Ayn Rand. That materialism often wears the dress of populism and parades as the champion of the poor and the oppressed.

Fortunately, Adenauer argued, Western democracy had such a universal worldview in Christianity and more particularly in Catholicism. The etymology of the very word Catholic conveys universality. What is striking about Adenauer’s position is that he viewed the formation of the Christian Democratic Union in 1945 as a non-denominational party open to all people, while insisting on a platform that stated: “The Christian foundation of the Democratic Union is the absolutely necessary and decisive factor. We want to replace the materialistic ideology of National Socialism with a Christian view of the world…Only Christian precepts guarantee justice, order, moderation, the dignity and liberty of the individual and thus true and genuine democracy…We regard the lofty view that Christianity takes of human dignity, of the value of each single man, as the foundation and directive of our work in the political, economic, and cultural life of our people.” The puzzling feature of this statement is its mixture of non-denominationalism and explicit Christian foundations. The puzzle is deepened when we learn that Adenauer himself was a devout Catholic and former member of the Catholic Center Party – the party that was created in the 1870’s during Bismarck’s kulturkampf (culture war) against Catholicism and that continued through the Weimar Republic which the Center Party strongly supported. Moreover, Adenauer was deeply influenced by the social teachings of the Catholic Church expressed in papal encyclicals, especially Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum and Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno, which he read and studied while under Nazi house arrest in 1933. Adenauer discovered in them a “comprehensive and coherent program inspired by belief in an order willed by God which was perfectly practical in terms of modern society.”

To resolve the puzzle in Adenauer’s position, one must see that his affirmation of a Christian Democratic Union that was nondenominational – open to Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and secular people alike – was possible because it offered a moral vision to all people: the belief in the innate dignity of every human being as the basis of democratic equality and freedom, and the grounding of this principle on faith in God and the Western heritage of Christianity. Adenauer believed that all people could rally around this conception of human dignity and could accept its democratic implications as a common basis for sacred and secular outlooks. Nor was this hope confined to Adenauer. It became the crucial article of faith in modern Christianity, a faith that was more and more explicitly articulated by political leaders, churches and theologians in the course of the twentieth century. The crucial insight is that Christianity and liberal democracy are two sides of the same coin – the sacred and secular sides of a common conception of human dignity that is in principle accessible, via universal reason, to believers as well as nonbelievers, even if its ultimate source and foundation happens to be Christian.

When we look at the history of European unity it is essential to remember what most of Europe looked like in the late 1940s. The Christian churches in Europe, and our Roman Catholic Church in particular as the largest church in Europe, was deeply engaged in relief efforts all over the continent – much of contemporary witness on behalf of the poorest people in the world, and on behalf of refugees, has its roots in the post-war years. It is also true that the depth of horror at the evil of war which is now a part of Catholic identity gets much of its inspiration from these years.

In addition, of course, there was the fear – indeed the expectation – that it was all going to start again, at least from March 1948. Europe was rapidly divided down the middle, an ‘iron curtain from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic’, as Churchill memorably put it. This fear led quickly to the formation of a military alliance, NATO, and to the further development of fearsome and immoral weapons of mass destruction, the fear also engendered a determination to secure democratic structures in the countries not occupied by the Soviet Union during the war, and a resolve that the western European democratic countries should co-operate and work together, and not get caught up once again in historical rivalries.

Unfortunately wars are always bound up with economic rivalry, and many historians see this as the heart of the problem between France and Germany. This was centered on what you need to make weapons of war – steel, and the coal you need to make steel. This was mined and made in an area over which the two countries had fought for a century, the Ruhr/Rhineland and Alsace-Lorraine. While much of this was devastated in the war, it needed to be reconstructed: would the rivalry resume? During the war some French politicians and statesmen had urged the creation of an enlarged state of Lorraine, distinct from Germany (and France).

Enter Jean Monet known as the ‘Father of Europe’ and declared the first (and only) ‘honorary citizen of Europe’ in 1976 (three years before his death at the age of 90), Jean Monnet was one of the most exceptional men of the 20th century. He was never an elected a politician – rather he was a fixer behind the scenes, an administrator – indeed this role has sometimes created a negative view of him. Monnet’s career shows how people behind the scenes often get things done. There is a lot more about Monnet’s life, but what is important is this: his experience of trying to solve enormous problems in enabling his country to fight a modern war showed him that what was necessary above all was the closest co-operation and integration of decision-making between allies.

Important to remember that Schuman was from Lorraine, the province constantly passed back and forth between France and Germany from 1870 to 1945. French by descent, he did not become a Frenchman until the end of the Great War, at the age of 32 – he had been a conscript in the German army. This man went on to become Foreign Minister and Prime Minister of France, and he understood the coal and steel which were produced in Lorraine and which had made it so desirable to both nations.

Adenauer, the post-war first leader of the of the new Federal Republic, was from the Rhineland – like Schuman, he had lived all his life in the shadow of Franco-German conflict. These two men, from neighboring areas which produced the same raw materials, were crucial in the rebuilding of post war Europe. Those economic considerations have given the false impression that they were uppermost on the mind of those four founding fathers. But that could be misleading.

Another thing these men shared was loyalty and commitment to the teaching of the Catholic Church which they considered universal and acceptable by reason, even by non-believers. They were well versed in philosophy. They were men who in the midst of war and conflict had tried in the 30s to pursue the Church’s vision, as enunciated by Pope Pius XI and others, of how society should be ordered. An example of how this became clear after the war is the place of trade unions in most mainland European states, reflecting Catholic teaching since Pope Leo XIII in the 1890s. Alcide De Gasperi was part of the same Christian Democrat tradition, encapsulated in the aspirations of Italy’s 1947 republican constitution (although Italian he was a German speaker and had grown up in the Austrian part of Italy).

Part of the answer these serious Catholic politicians had to the menace of Communism after the war, which was particularly real in France and Italy, was to stress the need for co-operation in society, and of good welfare policies funded by taxation, in line with Catholic social teaching; in effect a mitigation of what a savage kind of hear-less capitalism bent on the accumulation of wealth, often accompanied by the exploitation of workers.

The first big fruit of this common view was the Schuman plan (named after him but essentially conceived by Monnet) in 1950. The reason we mark Europe Day each year on 9 May, is that it was on this day that it all began – France and Germany set up a joint ‘High Authority’ to run the base materials of their economies, the production, pricing and selling of coal and steel. They surrendered sovereignty and unbridled nationalism voluntarily in order to work together – the European Coal and Steel Community set up by 1952 and including Italy, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg was the fruit of this plan and vision. The subsequent development of the ECSC into the EEC by the time of the Treaty of Rome in 1958 is well documented.

We need to remember that the original vision aiming at a political union and common defense, faded so that the EEC began by being primarily economic – why is that? Because of national pride, the turbulence in France in the late1950s, and fear of any armed alliance involving Germany. So, it is not correct to say that the union was conceived as mere trading alliance with no political underpinning. The contrary is true, people all over Europe understood that they needed to give up a measure of what they prized most highly – independence and sovereignty, to find a new way of working together in solidarity and in the interests of peace and stability.

In the difficult times the EU is currently undergoing when we hear much talk on the economy by bankers, economists and bureaucrats, while precious little is mentioned on cultural identity, when the center does not seem to hold very well, and the cart seems to have been placed before the horse, it is perhaps high time to return back to the future and ponder deeply the vision and the dream of the founding fathers of the EU, not to speak of its poets and philosophers, to determine if indeed such a union is worth preserving and fighting and even dying for, since not by bread alone does man live.

The above depiction of the major EU founding fathers may conjure up visions of the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne where the boundaries between the sacred and the secular are blurred. Confusion abounds on this issue of the Christian roots of Europe. But one thing is sure: the warning of the former Pope John Paul II to the European Parliament on the 11th of October 1988 remains valid. These are the prophetic words uttered at the time: “If the religious and Christian substratum of this continent is marginalized in its role as inspiration of ethical and social efficacy, we would be negating not only the past heritage of Europe but a future worthy of European man—and by that I mean every European Man, be he a believer or a non believer.”

That is a powerful warning which, unfortunately, was mostly ignored by the Constitutional Convention which produced the so called Treaty of Lisbon (i.e., the EU Constitution). In it the Christian heritage of Europe is hardly mentioned and is reduced to a banal statement such as “spiritual leanings.” It is almost as if one ought to be ashamed of such a heritage or at the very least one ought to hide it under a bushel. The constitution in fact, reads like a banal commercial document and lacks inspiration and a call to ideals beyond mere political or crassly economic considerations. As Jefferson aptly warned the US at the beginning of its political life: those who sacrifice freedom for economic advantages, end up losing both.

The question arises: are we currently witnessing the dissolution of a polity built on fragile foundations or a mere economic crisis? Some sustain that the crisis will be eventually resolved and the EU will go on to fulfill its political destiny as a powerful confederation of nations. But the issue goes deeper than that: it is an issue that has to do with the very values and the cultural identity of such a union. In other words, we need to determine if a Christian Democratic political approach conforms to the cultural identity of Europe.

In the first place it should be reiterated that Christian democracy is not a nostalgic throw back to the medieval Holy Roman Empire intolerant of all religions outside of Christianity. Far from it. The key to the conception of Christian democracy as held and practiced by Schuman, Adenauer and De Gasperi, and Monet, four important founding fathers of the EU, was the belief that democracy must be based on a “weltanschauung” – a worldview – that provides a complete account of the universe, man, and politics. Their vision was not merely economic and political but philosophical.

These founding fathers were acutely aware that part of the appeal of totalitarianism, be of the right or of the left, was the promise of a complete worldview, in contrast to democracy which was seen as a formal procedure that was neutral about outcomes or that simply managed the clash of competing interests. Moreover, while communism and fascism offered complete totalitarian worldviews, in some way competing with religion as ideologies, they were often based on “atheistic materialism” which the founding fathers steadfastly opposed for reducing the individual to a mere automaton or clog in the machinery of the state. As they saw it, politics was the struggle between competing weltanschauungs; and democracy could be firmly established in a post-war Europe only by possessing a worldview that could compete successfully with Marxism and Fascism of whatever stripe. What this democracy needed was a spiritual worldview to replace atheistic materialism and to prevent its own degeneration into egoistic hedonistic materialism or a return to a rabid xenophobic form of nationalism. Exactly what we see flourishing all over the EU nowadays.

The founding fathers argued that Western democracy possessed a worldview and it was called Christianity. What is striking about this position is that it views the formation of the Christian Democratic Unions of post-war Europe as non-denominational parties open to all people, while insisting on a platform that stated the following: “The Christian foundation of the Democratic Union is the absolutely necessary and decisive factor. We want to replace the materialistic ideology of National Socialism with a Christian view of the world. Only Christian precepts guarantee justice, order, moderation, the dignity and liberty of the individual and thus true and genuine democracy. We regard the lofty view that Christianity takes of human dignity, of the value of each single man, as the foundation and directive of our work in the political, economic, and cultural life of our people.”

The last inquiry here is this: how would non-Christians react to the notion of a Christian Europe? Especially those non-Christians, the Moslems for example, living and working in Europe. And, are we to exclude from the union non-Christian nations such as Turkey for example? How would the founding fathers reply to such a question? They would probably answer that a Christian Europe does not mean a Europe for Christians. It does not mean an official endorsement of, or call for, evangelization. That is certainly not the role of the European Union. But it would mean a Europe that does not deny its Christian inheritance and the richness that public debate can gain from engagement with Christian teachings. Which is to say, the voice of Christianity should not be eliminated from the public agora and it should have an equal right to be heard there with all the other voices of the polis.

There is something ironic in observing that some of those most opposed to any reference to religion or Christianity in the draft Constitution were at the forefront of opposition to Turkish membership in the Union. The founding fathers would probably consider it an insult to Christianity and its teaching of grace and tolerance to claim that there is no place in Europe for a non-Christian country or worse, for non-Christian individuals. Why would anyone within a polity that respects free speech and genuine democracy fear the recognition and acknowledgment of the dominant culture (i.e., Christianity) as an empirical historical fact? Is it not a shortsighted social and political strategy for a body politic to be based on the rejection of one’s history and heritage? Can such a polity survive for very long? What we are witnessing today does not leave much room for optimism. But history will eventually render a final verdict based on the success or failure of the Union. Meanwhile John-Paul’s prophesy remains as an ominous warning. Let those who have ears, let them hear.

N.B. The article above appeared originally in Ovi Magazine on July 15 2011. It was relevant then, it is even more relevant today six years later.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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Herat, the fire’s bride

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The olive eyes of Shaista peep between the bandages covering her burnt body, for she, like so many other Afghan women from the city of Herat, decided to escape her life by way of fire.

Shaista arrived at the hospital burning between wisps of hair and fabric, and her 19-year-old body is now a landscape of lava.

Tears seep between the gauze and the passageways of her blistered skin. Compassion is the closest thing to love that she will experience, and the hands of the man who changed her bandages are amongst the few that didn’t strike her.

She set herself on fire for a crime she didn’t commit, one that doesn’t exist, or one that everyone else appears to see except her. Her crime was being born a woman.

According to Oxfam, 8 out of every 10 Afghan women suffer either physical, sexual or psychological violence.

In 2015, the Independent Afghan Commission for Human Rights registered 5,132 gender crimes and between April and June 2016 the Ministry of Women’s Affairs reported 600, but many go unreported.

The women who go to the police are at risk of being raped before being returned to their families. Those who escape for more than 48 hours face accusations of adultery, the punishment for which is either facial mutilation or death. Passed between relatives, offered to others to pay debts or settle disputes, raped and subjected to acid attacks in the streets; these women lose their mental stability and take their own lives in the most brutal way.

They usually come from lower social groups and as they don’t have access to guns or money to buy barbiturates, they drink rat poison, hang themselves, jump into rivers or set themselves on fire.

Although the families declare a ‘domestic accident’, it is easy to identify a suicide, as the majority are aged between 14-21 years old and are soaked in kerosene, when in fact most people use firewood or gas to do the cooking at home.

85% of Afghan women are unable to read or write and thus out of ignorance believe that they will die quickly. But instead they suffer for days before dying. Many pour boiling oil over themselves or drizzle it over their abdomen in order to raise attention to their plight, but sometimes the flames envelop them.

One of the most influential thinkers and leading Afghan practitioners in the field, Dr. Djawed Sangdel says: “Education is a key. This country needs a thorough horizontalisation of education for all.”

80% of those who arrive in hospital perish because of a lack of means to treat them, and if they do survive, they suffer lifelong consequences, for it is difficult to follow a course of treatment whilst carrying water and looking after numerous children.

Almost 40 years of war brought with it misery, poor health and lack of governance, under which the patriarchal system flourished; a system which made Afghanistan an open-air prison for women, causing them irreparable psychological damage.

The country’s laws tolerate tribal codes and 60% of girls under the age of 15 are forced to marry men double their age, according to the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan.

Studies from the UN Fund for the Development of Women reveal that the majority of widows sell their bodies or turn to begging in order to survive, and 65% of them see suicide as the only solution to their misery.

Herat, once known as the Pearl of Khorasan, is today a ghost town, with a horizon dotted with adobe houses, obsolete war munitions and faces hidden from the world behind the grille of a burka.

After a week in hospital, Shaista’s mother-in-law escaped with her to hide her at home, as her son simply didn’t deserve the shame of a suicidal wife.

Almost a month after the fire, she returned with wounds all over her body and without any feeling in her arms due to large necrotic areas. She did, however, survive – one of life’s cruel jokes.

Now with the same fears as before, scars from the fire on her skin and with only one arm to carry her daughter, Shaista is back in the place that she so wanted to flee.

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The Modern Tragedy of Child Marriage

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Authors: Pooja Shah & Russell Whitehouse

“And just like that, my mother was married to the village chaiwala when she was 14!” I distinctly recall my grandmother saying as we sat together on the front porch, warmed by the mid-summer breeze.“14? She’s a child!” I gasped out of horror. “How can she be married? Her parents allowed it?” I ignorantly continued.

It was July 2011. I was visiting my now-late grandmother in Ahmedabad, Gujarat after a two-month writing excursion through Mussoorie. The first few days of my stay were filled with pleasantries and questions about school and life in “Amreeka”, quickly followed by the incessant questioning of when I would get married and if I found a suitable companion yet… Of course, to a 19-year old college sophomore student barely at the cusp of adulthood, marriage felt like an intangible figment of my imagination, as it did for most of my peers back home who were too occupied by finalizing our majors and what party to attend next weekend. However, as my grandmother spoke, summoning stories of her own mother, it became dauntingly obvious that not only marriage was the traditional norm, but marrying early was the expectation in the era she grew up in.

12% of girls in the developing world will be married off before the age of 15; in many of the world’s poorest countries, like Bangladesh, over half of girls will be married off before the age of 18.  According to the IWWC, over 400M women aged under 50 years old are survivors of child marriage. .Western countries aren’t exempt from this scourge: over 200k girls have been married in this current century in the US.

Although theoretically child marriage is outlawed in India, in many rural areas, impoverished families will often “give away” their children in exchange for fleeting economic security. Rooted deeply in religious, traditional and cultural norms, and often motivated by economic factors, many families view child marriages as a means to end their economic suffering.

My grandmother confided in me that her mother, a child herself, gave birth at the age of 16 with a husband who was nine years her senior. Dadi dismissed my shocking reaction and confirmed, once again, that this was not atypical. I began to realize over the course of our conversation the very limited rights and personal choices these children, particularly young girls, have. Their lives are a mere transaction: exchanging their livelihood and existence for a few rupees on their families behalf, all while being forced to forego their educations, childhood, hobbies, and sense of independence.

This commodification of the lives of girls reinforces a culture of deep misogyny. Being married off while school-age tends to end a girl’s education; less than half of child brides have completed primary (let alone higher) education.  This can create economic shackles for a girl in a marriage; without even a basic education, a girl or young woman is unlikely to find a job that can create any level of financial freedom.  Being saddled with a child from a young age also impedes a girl’s ability to leave the house to find work.  With this reality in mind, it’s no shock that child brides are 9% more likely to experience physical or sexual abuse (generally by a husband or parent in-law) than women.  A young lady with little education is less likely to be aware of legal options to end this suffering, like filing a domestic abuse complaint with the police or filing for divorce. 

Such a culture is likely to continue other degrading practices, like female genital mutilation and widow ostracizing, as well as create whole generations of traumatized girls and young women.  The systemic rape of young girls inevitably moves the social Overton window, making the rape of women, men and boys seem less important or even noteworthy.  Growing up in a household featuring such disparate power dynamics is liable to create a twisted sense of self-esteem and justice among children of child brides.  Mothers are one of the primary sources of the pedagogy of a child.  Thus, girls who were taken from their schools to get married would be less well equipped to contribute to their children’s education.  This would be especially apparent in terms of sexual education; a culture of child brides is intrinsically less able to teach its children about health topics like STDs and birth control, to say nothing of ethical issues like consent.

My dadi also revealed how her own mother suffered multiple miscarriages throughout her youth, as her body was not fully equipped to bear pregnancy. This is unsurprising; young girls aren’t biologically ready to go through the physical traumas of pregnancy and giving birth.  Pregnant girls under 15 have quintuple the maternal mortality rate of women; 88% of them suffer obstetric fistulae, which often lead to permanent disability.  Girls are also disproportionately likely to receive cervical lacerations during intercourse, which can lead to cervical cancer down the line.  The children resulting from these underage marriages suffer similar hazards.  Babies born to child brides are 28% more likely to die within their first 5 years of life than babies born to women.

When confronted by my bachelorette status (as I often was when I visited India), I remember I would always counter with “I have to finish school first”, acknowledging the privilege I had to control my education and career aspirations. When it comes to these child brides, often times marrying at a young age will likely mean an end to their education, and in turn, will hinder their ability to obtain the skills and knowledge that is vital for income-generating employment.

That day I was enraged by the fact that child marriage continues to exist in the 21st century, as well as my personal lack of awareness on the issue. It has been over eight years since that enlightening conversation, and thankfully due to the tireless efforts of activists, legislators, and advocates there has been movement towards ending child marriage. In fact, UNICEF and Indian Wedding Buzz joined forces earlier this year on Valentines’ Day to #EndChildMarriage, demonstrating that one of the most crucial steps in eradicating this humans right issue is to stand against it. By utilizing their global social media platform and influential magazine, the #EndChildMarriage initiative was aimed at raising awareness of the implications of child marriage and more importantly, how we, collectively, can help put a stop to it. The campaign further empowered young girls in many South Asian and African countries (i.e. Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, among nine others) with the information and resources to understand the implications of what they are being forced into. Furthermore, the program continued to develop national strategies with the efforts of government investments, religious leaders, and of course our community. This social media sensation, backed by Indian Wedding Buzz, demonstrated their respective commitment to being part of the change, so that we as South Asians, as Americans and as humans can follow suit to be part of this revolutionary movement. After all, there is strength in numbers.

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Marcia Andrade Braga: A ‘stellar example’ of why more women are needed in UN peacekeeping

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Brazilian peacekeeper Lieutenant Commander Marcia Andrade Braga serves in the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA). Photo: MINUSCA

Training gender advisors and focal points in the Central African Republic (CAR) has earned a Brazilian United Nations peacekeeper a special gender advocate award, it was announced on Tuesday.

Secretary-General António Guterres will bestow naval officer, Lieutenant Commander Marcia Andrade Braga, with the UN Military Gender Advocate of the Year Award during the 2019 Peacekeeping Ministerial conference due to be held at UN Headquarters in New York this Friday.

“UN Missions need more women peacekeepers so local women can talk more freely about the issues that affect their lives”, said Lt. Cdr. Braga.

“I am so proud to be selected”, she said, upon receiving news of her award, also expressing gratitude to her colleagues in the UN Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA).

Serving as the Military Gender Advisor at MINUSCA Headquarters since April 2018, Lt. Cdr. Braga has helped to build a network of trained gender advisors and focal points among the Mission’s military units and promoted mixed teams of men and women to conduct community-based patrols around the country.

These “Engagement Teams” were able to gather critical information to help the Mission understand the unique protection needs of men, women, boys and girls, which in turn helped develop community projects to support vulnerable communities.

Projects include the installation of water pumps close to villages, solar-powered lighting and the development of community gardens to cut down the distances women have to travel, to tend their crops.

Lt. Cdr. Braga is also a driving force behind MINUSCA leadership’s engagement with local women leaders, making sure that the voice of Central African women is heard throughout the ongoing peace process.

Moreover, as a former teacher she has also helped train and raise awareness among her peers on gender dynamics within the Mission.

Jean-Pierre Lacroix, who heads the UN Department of Peace Operations, spelled out: “Marcia Andrade Braga is a stellar example of why we need more women in peacekeeping: Peacekeeping works effectively when women play meaningful roles and when women in the host communities are directly engaged”.

Created in 2016, the UN award recognizes the dedication and effort of an individual peacekeeper in promoting the principles of UN Security Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325) on women, peace and security, which underscores the “3 Ps”, to prevent conflict; protect women and their rights during and after conflict; and to increase the numbers of women participating in all mechanisms, to prevent and resolve conflict.

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