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Princess Mabel Was an Activist Long Before She Was a Royal

a group of women sitting on the floor
Princess Mabel Is Determined to End Child MarriageCourtesy Princess Mabel

Princess Mabel hopes she can work herself out of business.

The Danish princess, who is the sister-in-law of King Willem-Alexander, founded the charity Vow for Girls in 2018 with the goal of ending child marriage.

Her target of "a situation where there are zero child marriages, and so that we can say: 'mission accomplished'" is ambitious, but if anyone can get the job done, it's Princess Mabel van Oranje of the Netherlands. "I just can't stand the idea that where you're born, your geography defines your destiny," she tells Town & Country while in New York City for International Women's Day. "Every girl, anywhere in the world, deserves the same opportunity. And it is up to us to create that world."

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Mabel, who married Prince Friso of the Netherlands in 2004, was an activist long before she was a princess. Ahead of her wedding, she recalls, "One of my fears, which I discussed with him, of being with him and getting married, was that it might constrain me. I want to stand up for the things I truly believe in; I've been doing that all my life."

netherlands wedding of prince johan friso mabel wisse smit
Prince Johan Friso gave up his place in the line of succession to marry Mabel. Here they are on their wedding day in April 2004. He tragically passed away in 2013.Pascal Le Segretain - Getty Images

Prior to working on ending child marriage, Princess Mabel pursued a number of philanthropic efforts. "I've worked on girls' education. I worked on democracy. I worked on independent media. I worked on natural resource transparency. I was really afraid that [becoming a royal] would constrain me," she says. "My husband, his older brother is the King, and he was also pursuing a normal career. He's like, 'Look, I love you for who you are.'" She adds, "The royal title sometimes helps to draw attention to issues, but normally, in my work, I don't use my title. I like to be known as an activist and, for me, what counts most is not the protocol for me, but the impact that we create and the change that we make."

She first started her campaign against child marriage in 2011, when she launched the Girls Not Brides initiative as part of The Elders, an international NGO of leaders brought together by Nelson Mandela.

"I was shocked that the issue [of child marriage] wasn't getting more attention and not just because it is such a big issue but also the consequences are so big. For girls who marry, most of them are either are pulled out of school, or were never even allowed to go to school. They get pregnant before their bodies are ready to carry babies. They're much more likely to become the victims of violence. They get into this downward spiral, where they basically get stuck," Mabel says. "We know that the alternative is much more uplifting; not just for the girls, but for societies at large. A girl who gets educated earns more money, the money they earn, they put it back into their families. Some girls can help to actually lift entire communities out of poverty. It seems like a no brainer to work on it."

But there's no one-size-fits-all answer for ending child marriage, Princess Mabel explains. "Each community needs its own solution. What you need to do is empower people locally, who understand why it's happening, what needs to change, and who holds the power of change; it can be the local religious or traditional leaders. It can be women who set up girls' clubs; it can be the parents; it can be teachers. You need to empower them to do that job. Civil society, and especially local organizations, play a critical role in ending this."

princess mabel
Princesss Mabel on a visit to Nepal.Courtesy Princess Mabel

Princess Mabel had her "a-ha" moment about fundraising for the cause when attending a friend's wedding: "What if we mobilize weddings to make sure that when people under happy circumstances celebrate love, they can then also do something meaningful by making sure that girls elsewhere in the world can also celebrate love on their own terms?"

So, she launched Vow for Girls, with the goal of motivating people to give in their happy moments—at weddings, anniversaries, bar mitzvahs, and the like. Mabel explains, "Anything where people celebrate, we know that people actually are looking for meaning and are quite keen to bring in a meaningful cause, something where they can help people who are less fortunate than they are in their celebrations."

To date, more than 8,000 couples have partnered with Vow for Girls for their weddings, including Sheryl Sandberg and Tom Bernthal, who, in summer 2022, donated $1 million to the cause as part of their wedding celebration. Sandberg and Bernthal also invited their guests to donate in lieu of a gift.

"All girls should be able to choose when and who they marry. Tom and I made the decision to marry each other—to choose a partner who we deeply love. Too many young girls are robbed of this same choice," Sandberg said in a statement at the time. "We hope our support can help put an end to child marriage so that millions more girls can live healthy, fulfilling lives."

One hundred percent of money raised through the Vow for Girls initiative goes to local organizations working to end child marriage through providing support for girls to finish their education, advocating for reproductive health, and addressing gender-based violence. The groups receive support and guidance from Girls Not Brides, the organization Mabel launched nearly 15 years ago. (You can see a full list of partners on Girls Not Brides's site.)

The number one biggest challenge the organization still faces, Mabel says, is funding. "Child marriage is happening in so many places. Globally, still, one out of every five girls is married before 18. There's a lot of girls and a lot of parents and a lot of communities that need to be reached."

And Princess Mabel is determined to reach them all.

For more information on VOW for Girls and how to donate visit vowforgirls.org

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