Mabel van Oranje

Entrepreneur for Social Change

Mabel van Oranje is a serial entrepreneur for social change working globally to advance equality, freedom and justice. During the last decade, she played a catalytic role in the global movement to end child marriage, including the creation and growth of three entities central to efforts to support girls’ futures: Girls Not Brides, the Girls First Fund, and VOW for Girls. Mabel is currently a board member of Fondation Chanel, the Sigrid Rausing Trust, and VOW for Girls (Chair). She is also an advisor to Apolitical Academy Global, Co-Impact’s Gender Fund, Global Witness, and The Elders. Mabel is a global champion of Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage, and a co-founder and chair emeritus of the European Council on Foreign Relations. You can follow her tweets @MabelvanOranje

Girls Not Brides is a global partnership of more than 900 civil society organisations from over 95 countries committed to ending child marriage and enabling girls to fulfil their potential. Members are based throughout Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the Americas. We share the conviction that every girl has the right to lead the life that she chooses and that, by ending child marriage, we can achieve a safer, healthier and more prosperous future for all

Tell us briefly why you are passionate about being involved with SheDecides?

"Only by working together across sectors, as the SheDecides movement is doing, can we ensure that girls everywhere can make informed decisions about their bodies, their sexual and reproductive health, and their futures. That is why I am pleased to be a SheDecides champion".

This month we’re shining the light on SheDecides Champion, Girls Not Brides Chair and proud human rights activist Princess Mabel van Oranje.

Princess Mabel has played a key role in the AIDS movement, recently opening  AIDS 2018 - the largest health & rights conference in the world – with a bold, dynamic speech about the unequal impact of HIV and devastating stigma that impacts girls and women most.

Read the full interview below.

1.       Tell us briefly why you are passionate about being involved with SheDecides.

Since Girls Not Brides was started seven years ago, I have met girls all over the world who lack access to comprehensive sexuality education. I remember girls who had never heard about sex before they got pregnant. I remember girls who had been taught not to get pregnant, but had not been told how to avoid pregnancy. And I remember girls who knew all these things, but could not get access to contraceptives.

When it comes to ending child marriage this presents a serious problem: As it stands, 12 million girls per year – nearly one every two seconds – are married before the age of 18. Early pregnancy is both a driver and a consequence of child marriage. Often these girls do not know their own bodies, let alone the fact that unprotected sex can lead to pregnancy.

Both unmarried and married girls need access to contraception and health services to live healthy and safe lives. But child brides are often forgotten when it comes to family planning services. As a result, millions of girls around the world are disempowered. Only by working together across sectors, as the SheDecides movement is trying to do, can we ensure that girls everywhere can make informed decisions about their bodies, their sexual and reproductive health, and their futures. That is why I am pleased to be a SheDecides champion.

2. Describe how you are working hard so women and girls can make decisions themselves about their bodies.

To live happier and healthier lives, girls everywhere need to be given a choice about if, when and whom they marry.

Girls Not Brides is a partnership of over 1000 member organisations in more than 95 countries committed to ending child marriage and enabling girls to fulfil their potential. We work together to raise awareness about solutions to child marriage, to mobilise political will and financial resources to tackle the harmful practise, and to learn from each other. Many of our members work directly with girls to give them the opportunity to understand and exercise their rights and empower them to make informed decisions about their bodies. Or they work to ensure that adolescent girls, married and unmarried, have access to health services. Ultimately, is an important part of our efforts to end child marriage.

But for change to happen, the values and norms which support the practice of child marriage need to shift. Many of our members also work with girls’ families and the wider community to raise awareness of the harmful consequences of child marriage and change attitudes. Others advocate for legal and policy changes which help to prevent the practice.

  3. How is SheDecides relevant to the work of Girls Not Brides? What are some of the consequences when girls are not able to decide when, whether and with whom they marry? 

The practice of child marriage is closely linked to sexual autonomy and health. Girls may be forced to marry because they become pregnant, because of concerns about their sexual safety or their family’s honour, or because there is a financial transaction involved, such as a dowry or bride price. But in the end, it is all linked to the inequality between men and women.

Married girls are forced into sexual activity when their bodies are still developing. Most child brides lack the knowledge, confidence, and power to negotiate safe sex. As a result, they are vulnerable to the complications of early pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, fistulas, and death in childbirth. Globally, complications related to pregnancy and childbirth are the second leading cause of death among girls aged 15 to 19.

But child marriage doesn’t just violate girls’ basic rights to health, education and safety. It also undermines efforts to reduce global poverty. Unless we end child marriage, it will be harder or impossible to meet eight of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Ending the practice will help to accelerate efforts to achieve a safe, healthy and prosperous future for girls around the world – a goal which, I know, all SheDecides  Champions and Friends share.

  4. Tell us a story of a moment that drives you to do what you do every day.

Even one childhood lost to child marriage is one too many. So every one of the millions girls married as children every year motivate me to contribute to ending child marriage. When I speak with child brides around the world, I am often struck by how different child marriage looks from one community to the next. At the same time, the stories of the suffering of the girls are often the same.

Take Cynthia, for example, a 12-year-old girl I met in Zambia. She was shocked when she found out that she was pregnant. Growing up in a community that considers talking about sex taboo, she hadn’t known what sex was, let alone that it could lead to pregnancy. When she found out she was going to have a child, while still a child herself, she was devastated. Marriage was her only option. Unable to continue her education, she had lost any chance of escaping poverty. I have heard countless stories like this, everywhere from Indonesia to Mozambique. Each one of them is a reminder of why we must end child marriage for good.

5. How are we going to get to a future where SheDecides, without question?

A big step forward would be to break down the taboos that exist around sex and ensure young people’s access to contraception. I remember the story of the girl who went to the local clinic to get contraceptives. The health worker told her off and sent her away, stating that she was too young to have sex. Do you really think that this would stop a man from forcing himself upon her that night?

We must change the attitudes that make talking about sex taboo. We need to address the power dynamics that limit access to reproductive health services, even when they are available. And we must recognise the damage caused by child marriage, including to girls’ sexual and reproductive health.

If we work together to tackle child marriage and ensure girls have access to quality sex education and services, we can create a world where girls and women are empowered, in charge of their own destinies, and able to live their lives free of violence. This is a world that makes all of us better off.