Last year, in Ethiopia, I met young women who had been married around the age of 10 or 12. Many of them had their first children at 13 or 14. I must confess, I was devastated to learn about the scale and impact of this problem worldwide.

Every day more than 25,000 girls are married without any say in the matter, to men who are often much older than they are. These girls usually drop out of school because their household chores are seen to be more important. When they become young mothers themselves, they are children having children – at serious danger of injury and even death in pregnancy and childbirth.

Child marriage robs 10 million girls a year of their childhood, of their basic rights to education, security and health. These girls are invisible. They have no voice.

My message to all the men attending the World Economic Forum is that it is our responsibility – yes, us, men – to put a stop to this harmful practice.

Harmful traditions must be challenged

Child marriage is not a religious practice; it is a tradition. There are many good traditions that bind communities together. But traditions are not static – they evolve.

Traditions that are harmful, that have outlived their purpose, must be challenged. Foot binding disappeared once social views about it were challenged and it was outlawed. Slavery was also defended as a ‘way of life’, repugnant as that sounds. I remember those who defended apartheid on ‘cultural’ grounds. All these practices have, thankfully, largely disappeared. Child marriage too is declining, but much too slowly.

Our responsibility as men

Child marriage occurs because we men allow it. It is not a ‘women’s issue’. Village chiefs, religious leaders, politicians, decision-makers: most are male. In order for child marriage to end, we need to enlist the support of all the men who know this is wrong, and work together to persuade all those who don’t.

I met religious leaders in Ethiopia, both Orthodox Christian and Muslim, who speak out publicly against child marriage and teach their flocks that neither Christianity nor Islam endorses this tradition. And it is working! We are seeing change in areas where child marriage is common, because faith leaders are working together, with government, with local leaders, to challenge something they know is wrong.

This year in Davos, I am on a mission to find more faith leaders who will say that child marriage is wrong and should end. I want to persuade political and business leaders – mostly men – to empower girls, invest in them, and see the positive transformation that will occur throughout their societies as a result.

Our world is blessed with the largest generation of young people in history. Imagine what would happen if the girls of this generation all go to school and have the chance to become teachers, doctors, businesswomen, politicians, religious leaders!

Men, boys, let us be bold. Let us speak the truth and stand up for the rights of girls and women to equality, dignity, and the rights we all share.

Desmond Tutu is Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, a Nobel Peace Laureate and veteran peace campaigner widely regarded as ‘South Africa’s moral conscience’. He is Chair of The Elders, a group of independent global leaders working together for peace and human rights. In 2011, The Elders initiated Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage.

Official Twitter account: @TheElders

Photo: Child marriage project Ethiopia. Ashenafi Tibebe.