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November 18, 2016

Desmond Tutu: Child marriage harms our human family

Millions of girls are married as children. This fact harms our human family and reminds us how deeply biased our world still is against mothers, sisters and daughters. We now have a moral duty to end one of humankind’s most destructive traditions. Experts say it is feasible in one generation.

Maybe because I am a man, I have spent much of my life ignorant of the scale and awfulness of child marriage. But, in recent years, I have talked to many girls and women who have educated me. It wasn’t until my retirement that I realised that one in three women in the developing world is married before the age of 18, or understood what they risk as a result.

Across the world, girls are powerless to choose when they marry, to whom, or whether they marry at all. The day of their marriage is the day they give up school. Under pressure to bear children, they cannot negotiate safe or consensual sex. As pregnant young mothers, they face the danger of injury and death. Indeed, childbirth is one of the biggest killers of teenage girls in the developing world — and their children face the same tragic odds.

Marrying a girl young, often to a much older man, is a sure way to inflict poverty and inequality in her community. But there is an alternative: to end this cycle is to free a girl to be safe and healthy — to let her flourish and become who she wants to be, on her own terms.

Five years ago, I organised a… continue reading on Financial Times

June 7, 2016

Desmond Tutu: It is Time to Talk About Rape

Editor’s Note: Last week, convicted rapist Brock Turner was sentenced to six months in jail and three years of probation for raping an unconscious woman. Widespread outrage has erupted throughout the United States over what most consider to be a sentence that was too lenient. A Change.org petition to recall the judge has received over 130,000 signatures. In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a video surfaced showing a 16-year old being assaulted by more than 30 men sparking a protest. We must do something to change this culture of rape and the fist step is having an honest discussion about it.

By Desmond Tutu, Jacob Lief and Sohaila Abdulali

What will you discuss with your children this evening? Sports, the weather, celebrity gossip, rape?

We are from three generations, three faiths (Christian, Muslim, Jewish) and three continents (Africa, Asia, North America). One of us is a religious leader, one a writer and rape survivor and one the CEO of a non-profit organisation. We come together in the wake of the recent upheaval around rape in India, South Africa, the US and the UK, because we share a passionate conviction: we must bring the discourse home to the next generation on every continent.

Why did the men in the recent India and South Africa crimes rape, torture, and murder their victims? How could Jimmy Savile of the BBC molest hundreds of people and still die a hero? Why did the gang rapists in Ohio feel safe boasting on camera about what they had done? Why do too many Indians dehumanise women, and too many South Africans believe that men are just intrinsically badly behaved and programmed to rape? Who do we think these sub-human women and out-of-control men are?

They are us and, if we are not careful, they will be our children. We do not have the answers, but we should all be asking the questions, and we should include our sons, daughters and all the young people in our lives in our discussions. We need to stop behaving as if it’s all a terrible problem out there, and start talking about it with each other and with our children.

o much ink has been spilt in the media over the past few weeks. Rape has become a ubiquitous global topic, and that is encouraging since it is a global blot on our collective humanity. But hardly anyone has paid attention to how this affects the most important group of all: the next generation, which is poised to inherit our poisonous baggage.

The fact is, rape is utterly commonplace in all our cultures. It is part of the fabric of everyday life, yet we all act as if it’s something shocking and extraordinary whenever it hits the headlines. We remain silent, and so we condone it. The three of us deal with this issue in different ways every day of our lives, yet we too are guilty of protesting articulately outside but leaving it on the other side of the door when we sit down to dinner with our families. Until rape, and the structures – sexism, inequality, tradition – that make it possible, are part of our dinner-table conversation with the next generation, it will continue. Is it polite and comfortable to talk about it? No. Must we anyway? Yes.

It seems daunting. But which is more painful: talking sensibly with young people about this issue, the same way we might talk with them about drugs, guns or bullying, or waiting for something terrible to happen so close to home that you have to address it in a time of turmoil?

Children can seem fragile, and adults often have the mistaken notion that telling children about harsh realities will destroy their innocence. But you do not lose innocence when you learn about terrible acts; you lose your innocence when you commit them. An open culture of tolerance, honesty and discussion is the best way to safeguard innocence, not destroy it.

Changing rape culture is family work, but it cannot be only family work. It is a public health issue of gravest concern. The statistics are everywhere, but the evidence is weirdly shadowy: like the one in four girls abused in South Africa, by the one in four men who admit to having raped someone. (But who are these girls, and where are these men? Hardly anyone is talking.) The cost in human suffering, lives decimated, families destroyed, mental anguish, physical trauma … the cost of rape is probably bigger than any of us can comprehend. Rape is expensive. Not just families from China to Canada, but also all the important institutions in young people’s lives everywhere – schools from Finland to the Philippines, youth programmes from London to Laos – should spend less energy ignoring the issue and more energy helping children understand the basic concepts of respect and choice.

Yes, governments must step up. But so should we all. Why shouldn’t rape be dinner-table conversation? We talk about war, we talk about death, we discuss values with our children. But on the subject of sexual assault, we remain silent and squeamish. We leave them ill-prepared, with whispers of untold horrors and no guidance for our sons on how they should behave if one day they should find themselves in a group of boys with a girl in their power.

Rape does not exist in a vacuum, and we cannot talk about it as if it is removed from the rest of our lives. Let’s teach our children that they don’t need to live in little boxes defined by their gender or culture. Let’s teach them that they are all of equal worth. Let’s not favour our boys over our girls. Let’s not tolerate bullying or stereotyping. Let’s reject utterly the notion that boys will be boys and girls must work around this assumption or pay the price.

Yes, policies should change, laws should be just. But if we want to make a fundamental difference, all of us must bring the conversation home. It is our opportunity to start to create true change. It might not be polite and comfortable, but it is essential. We owe it to our children.

This article originally appeared in The Guardian on April 26, 2013.


April 14, 2016

Renewing the Call to #BringBackOurGirls


Members of the “Bring Back Our Girls” movement and mothers of the missing schoolgirls, hold a banner showing photographs of some of the missing girls when they marched to press for their release from Boko Haram captors on January 14, 2016 in Abuja, Nigeria. PHOTO | AFP

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” – Desmond Tutu

In April of 2014, I was working for His Holiness the Dalai Lama as the Deputy Director of his U.S. Foundation. We had programs for peace all over the world. One that held a special place in my heart was a school that we sponsored in Jos, Nigeria. This school’s focus was to incorporate secular ethics into the already rigid curriculum that was outlined by the Nigerian government.

Because of my connection with this school, the faculty, and the students, I was particularly shocked and saddened when, on April 14th of 2014, Boko Haram militants kidnapped 276 girls from the nearby town of Chibok. This sadness was compounded when a few weeks later, assailants from the same group set off a bomb in the market place in Jos, killing more than 30 including one of our students from the school.

Who of us doesn’t remember the outpouring of support that accompanied the hashtag, #BringBackOurGirls? The campaign was taken up from such a variety of luminaries – from Michelle Obama to Kim Kardashian – and it shone a global light on the brutal yet largely ignored conflict that has been raging in Nigeria for more than seven years. Archbishop Desmond Tutu stood with ONE leaders to call for an action to free these girls.

So what happened to the girls?


The mother of a girl abducted by Boko Haram takes part in a rally in Abuja, Nigeria, in January 2016. (L.A. Times)

According to Mr. Ufuoma Akpojivi, a media researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, 219 of those 276 girls are still missing. Most have not been seen since a video that Boko Haram released in May 2014. Then the Los Angeles Times reported today that the November following the kidnappings in Chibok and bombings in Jos, more than 400 people, mostly children, vanished after a Boko Haram invasion of Damasak. Despite the world’s attention on Nigeria, a Human Rights Watch report has concluded that the Nigerian security forces never really made an effort to locate the missing girls and boys from Damasak.

219 girls missing from Chibok, more than 400 people missing from Damasak – and this is just a small fraction of the thousands of women, girls and boys that have been abducted. Amnesty International reports that more than 2000 women were abducted just in 2015 and 2016. UNICEF reports that in 2015,In 2015, the estimated number of Boko Haram bomb attacks in North-East Nigeria and neighboring countries increased sharply, as did the proportion of attacks involving children. Three quarters of these so-called suicide-bombing attacks involve young girls. These children are victims, not perpetrators. Usually the bombs are strapped to their bodies and detonated remotely, without the children even knowing what they are.

In the two years since the Chibok girls were abducted, Nigeria held free elections as well as demonstrated an impressive vigilance in defending against the Ebola virus. Nigeria can handle this, but they need our help. We need to continue telling the story of these girls, but we cannot stop there. The international community needs to renew their full support to all local, regional and national governments to dedicate their resources and and expertise, to do whatever necessary, to #BringBackOurGirls.

– BR

February 20, 2016

Inner Peacekeeping For Global Peacekeepers

Screen Shot 2016-02-20 at 2.28.04 PMAs a human rights lawyer for the United Nations, Amandine Roche worked for 15 years in conflict zones under challenging circumstances. She realized that many of the humanitarians were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and had inadequate resources to deal with it. In her TEDx talk she makes the case for how ancient wisdom traditions such as yoga and meditation can help humanitarians on the front lines to avoid burnout, stress and depression.

She has worked in more than 20 electoral processes in post-conflict countries, mainly in Afghanistan for the last decade, with a focus on civic education, democratization, gender and youth empowerment.

After the kidnapping and assassination of Read More

July 8, 2015

Desmond Tutu: ‘I am sorry’ – the three hardest words to say

Archbishop Desmond Tutu … 'My father has long since died, but if I could speak to him today, I would want to tell him that I had forgiven him.' Photograph: Ian Langsdon/EPA

There were so many nights when I, as a young boy, had to watch helplessly as my father verbally and physically abused my mother. I can still recall the smell of alcohol, see the fear in my mother’s eyes and feel the hopeless despair that comes when we see people we love hurting each other in incomprehensible ways. I would not wish that experience on anyone, especially not a child.

If I dwell on those memories, I can feel myself wanting to hurt my father back, in the same ways he hurt my mother, and in ways of which I was incapable as a small boy. I see my mother’s face and I see this gentle human being whom I loved so very much and who did nothing to deserve the pain inflicted on her.

When I recall this story, I realise how difficult the process of forgiving truly is. Intellectually, I know my father caused pain because he himself was in pain. Spiritually, I know my faith tells me my father deserves to be forgiven as God forgives us all. But it is still difficult. The traumas we have witnessed or experienced live on in our memories. Even years later they can cause us fresh pain each time we recall them.

If I traded lives with my father, if I had experienced the stresses and pressures my father faced, if I had to bear the burdens he bore, would I have behaved as he did? I do not know. I hope I would have been different, but I do not know.

My father has long since died, but if I could speak to him today, I would want to tell him that I had forgiven him. What would I say to him? I would begin by thanking him for all the wonderful things he did for me as my father, but then I would tell him that there was this one thing that hurt me very much. I would tell him how what he did to my mother affected me, how it pained me.

Perhaps he would hear me out; perhaps he would not. But still I would forgive him.

Why would I do such a thing? I know it is the only way to heal the pain in my boyhood heart. Forgiveness is not dependent on the actions of others. Yes, it is certainly easier to offer forgiveness when the perpetrator expresses remorse and offers some sort of reparation or restitution. Then, you can feel as if you have been paid back in some way. You can say: “I am willing to forgive you for stealing my pen, and after you give me my pen back, I shall forgive you.” This is the most familiar pattern of forgiveness. We don’t forgive to help the other person. We don’t forgive for others. We forgive for ourselves. Forgiveness, in other words, is the best form of self-interest.

Forgiveness takes practice, honesty, open-mindedness and a willingness (even if it is a weary willingness) to try. It isn’t easy. Perhaps you have already tried to forgive someone and just couldn’t do it. Perhaps you have forgiven and the person did not show remorse or change his or her behaviour or own up to his or her offences – and you find yourself unforgiving all over again. It is perfectly normal to want to hurt back when you have been hurt. But hurting back rarely satisfies. We think it will, but it doesn’t. If I slap you after you slap me, it does not lessen the sting I feel on my own face, nor does it diminish my sadness over the fact that you have struck me. Retaliation gives, at best, only momentary respite from our pain. The only way to experience healing and peace is to forgive. Until we can forgive, we remain locked in our pain and locked out of the possibility of experiencing healing and freedom, locked out of the possibility of being at peace.

Desmond Tutu and his wife, Leah, and their children, from left: Trevor Thamsanqa, Thandeka Theresa, Nontombi Naomi and Mpho Andrea, England, c1964. (c) Mpilo Foundation Archives, courtesy Tutu family (c) Mpilo Foundation Archives, courtesy Tutu family./ot

As a father myself, raising children has sometimes felt like training for a forgiveness marathon. Like other parents, my wife, Leah, and I could create a whole catalogue of the failures and irritations our children have served up. As infants, their loud squalls disturbed our slumber. Even as one or the other of us stumbled out of bed, the irritation at being woken and the thoughts of the fatigue that would lie like a pall over the coming day gave way to the simple acknowledgment that this was a baby. This is what babies do. The loving parent slides easily into the place of acceptance, even gratitude, for the helpless bundle of tears. Toddler tantrums might provoke an answering anger in a mother or father, but it will be quickly replaced by the understanding that a little person does not yet have the language to express the flood of feelings contained in his or her body. Acceptance comes.

As our own children grew, they found new (and remarkably creative) ways of testing our patience, our resolve and our rules and limits. We learned time and again to turn their transgressions into teaching moments. But mostly we learned to forgive them over and over again, and fold them back into our embrace. We know our children are so much more than the sum of everything they have done wrong. Their stories are more than rehearsals of their repeated need for forgiveness. We know that even the things they did wrong were opportunities for us to teach them to be citizens of the world. We have been able to forgive them because we have known their humanity. We have seen the good in them.

Desmond Tutu with Nelson Mandela in South Africa, 1998. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images Walter Dhladhla/AFP/Getty Images

In the 1960s, South Africa was in the fierce grip of apartheid. When the Bantu Education system of inferior education for black children was instituted by the government, Leah and I left the teaching profession in protest. We vowed we would do all in our power to ensure our children were never subjected to the brain-washing that passed for education in South Africa. Instead, we enrolled our children in schools in neighbouring Swaziland. Six times each year we made the 3,000-mile drive from Alice in the Eastern Cape to my parents’ home in Krugersdorp. After spending the night with them, we would drive five hours to Swaziland, drop off or pick up the children at their schools and drive back to Krugersdorp to rest before the long drive home. There were no hotels or inns that would accommodate black guests at any price.

During one of those trips, my father said he wanted to talk. I was exhausted. We were halfway home and had driven 10 hours to drop the children at school. Sleep beckoned. We still had another 15-hour drive back to our home in Alice. Driving through the Karoo – that vast expanse of semi-desert in the middle of South Africa – was always trying. I told my father I was tired and had a headache. “We’ll talk tomorrow, in the morning,” I said. We headed to Leah’s mother’s home half an hour away. The next morning, my niece came to wake us with the news: my father was dead.

I was grief-stricken. I loved my father very much and while his temper pained me greatly, there was so much about him that was loving, wise and witty. And then there was the guilt. With his sudden death I would never be able to hear what he had wanted to say. Was there some great stone on his heart that he had wanted to remove? Might he have wanted to apologise for the abuse he had inflicted on my mother when I was a boy? I will never know. It has taken me many, many years to forgive myself for my insensitivity, for not honouring my father one last time with the few moments he wanted to share with me. Honestly, the guilt still stings.

When I reflect back across the years to his drunken tirades, I realise now that it was not just with him that I was angry. I was angry with myself. Cowering in fear as a boy, I had not been able to stand up to my father or protect my mother. So many years later, I realise that I not only have to forgive my father, I have to forgive myself.

A human life is a great mixture of goodness, beauty, cruelty, heartbreak, indifference, love and so much more. All of us share the core qualities of our human nature and so sometimes we are generous and sometimes selfish. Sometimes we are thoughtful and other times thoughtless; sometimes we are kind and sometimes cruel. This is not a belief. This is a fact.

No one is born a liar or a rapist or a terrorist. No one is born full of hatred. No one is born full of violence. No one is born in any less glory or goodness than you or me. But on any given day, in any given situation, in any painful life experience, this glory and goodness can be forgotten, obscured or lost. We can easily be hurt and broken, and it is good to remember that we can just as easily be the ones who have done the hurting and the breaking.

The simple truth is, we all make mistakes, and we all need forgiveness. There is no magic wand we can wave to go back in time and change what has happened or undo the harm that has been done, but we can do everything in our power to set right what has been made wrong. We can endeavour to make sure the harm never happens again.

There are times when all of us have been thoughtless, selfish or cruel. But no act is unforgivable; no person is beyond redemption. Yet, it is not easy to admit one’s wrongdoing and ask for forgiveness. “I am sorry” are perhaps the three hardest words to say. We can come up with all manner of justifications to excuse what we have done. When we are willing to let down our defences and look honestly at our actions, we find there is a great freedom in asking for forgiveness and great strength in admitting the wrong. It is how we free ourselves from our past errors. It is how we are able to move forward into our future, unfettered by the mistakes we have made.

This article originally appeared in the March 22, 2014 issue of the Guardian

May 4, 2013

We Can Stop Violence Against Women

A 4 year-old girl died recently from cardiac arrest at Care Hospital in Nagpur, India after being raped by a 35 year old man, Firoz Khan.  He was  later apprehended by police and confessed to the crime.  The girl was allegedly abducted from Ghansaur, a small town in central India, on April 17, and was found by her family the next day, unconscious and with severe head injuries.  Though she was quickly airlifted to a hospital in Nagpur and put on a ventilator, she did not survive.

This incident was the latest in a series of brutal assaults on very young girls that have sparked outrage in the country and raised awareness about how women and girls are treated in India, and around the globe.

Statistics collected by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women about violence against women and girls worldwide paint a grim picture of the scope of the tragedy.

  • Worldwide, up to 50 percent of sexual assaults are committed against girls under 16.
  • An estimated 150 million girls under the age of 18 suffered some form of sexual violence in 2002 alone.
  • Most of this violence takes place within intimate relationships, with husbands or partners as the perpetrator.
  • The first sexual experience of some 30 percent of women was forced. The percentage is even higher among those under the age of 15 at the time of their sexual initiation.  Up to 45 percent of girls in this group reported that the experience was forced.

And the violence takes many forms:

  • Approximately 100 to 140 million girls and women in the world have experienced female genital mutilation.
  • Over 60 million girls worldwide are child brides, married before the age of 18. Women who marry early are more likely to be beaten or threatened, and more likely to believe that a husband might sometimes be justified in beating his wife.
  • Women and girls are 80 percent of the estimated 800,000 people trafficked across national borders annually, with the majority (79 percent) trafficked for sexual exploitation.
  • Between 40 and 50 percent of women in European Union countries experience various forms of sexual harassment at work. In Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines and South Korea 30 to 40 percent of women suffer workplace sexual harassment.
  • In the United States, 83 percent of girls aged 12 to 16 experienced some form of sexual harassment in public schools
  • Conservative estimates suggest that hundreds of thousands of women and girls have been the victims of rape and other forms of violence during recent conflicts in Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans.

Gender-based violence both reflects and reinforces inequities between men and women and compromises the health, dignity, security and autonomy of its victims. It encompasses a wide range of human rights violations, including sexual abuse of children, rape, domestic violence, sexual assault and harassment, trafficking of women and girls and several harmful traditional practices. Any one of these abuses can leave deep psychological scars, damage the health of women and girls in general, including their reproductive and sexual health, and in some instances, results in death.

Over the years, there have been many theories about the causes of violence against women range from biological to social, political and economic.  To varying degrees, in many countries, women have restricted access, relative to their male counterparts, to education, health services and justice systems.  Gender inequality is often rooted in social attitudes and traditions, and enshrined in a web of legal statutes.

The United Nations has developed a list of recommendations aimed at dismantling gender inequality in all its forms and ending the violence it spawns.  But the very first step must be to bring this issue into the light where it can be acknowledged and acted upon at all levels of society.  In India, the recent brutal attacks against young women and girls have brought a public furor and activism never seen before.  This recognition of an intolerable situation is the first step to real change.  The struggle of women around the world for equality and freedom from violence is one that we all share.

We want to hear your thoughts, ideas and suggestions.  Join the discussion – here, on Twitter and on Facebook.  (On Twitter use the hashtag #dtpfsvaw.)