Building Awareness of Child Marriage

Kathy Selvaggio

Too often, American policy makers claim that the United States should not get involved in addressing child marriage because the practice is rooted in cultural or religious traditions.

The recent conviction of Warren Jeffs, leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, on two felony counts of rape by accomplice in the arranged marriage of a 14-year-old girl to her 19-year-old cousin hopefully drove home to the U.S. public that child marriage is a crime. In fact, child marriage – marriage before age 18 – is outlawed in most countries worldwide. Yet in many of these same countries, child marriage persists.

In Bangladesh, India, Mali, Nepal and Uganda, for example, more than half of girls are married younger than 18 – some as young as 8 or 9. (For a list of the countries with the highest rates of child marriage, visit http://www.icrw.org/docs/2006_cmtoolkit/cm_all.pdf, and look to p. 13)

The PBS/NOW documentary, "Child Brides: Stolen Lives," airs Oct. 12 on public broadcasting stations throughout the United States, exposing the wrenching life changes that young girls face in India, Niger and Guatemala when they are sold into marriage, often against their will. The documentary also highlights how people can act locally and globally to solve the problem.

This hour-long film reveals the devastating consequences of child marriage on girls, their families and communities. Child brides typically experience high rates of childbirth complications, HIV infection and partner violence. They drop out of school to devote themselves to maintaining households and raising children – while still children themselves. Child brides often are married poor and remain that way, trapping families in a vicious cycle of poverty.

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Despite these sobering facts, the issue of child marriage barely has registered on the radars of U.S. policy makers and the U.S. foreign policy agenda. Too often, policy makers respond that the United States should not get involved because the practice is rooted in cultural or religious traditions. Yet awareness trumped "culture" in helping to shift norms condoning the practice of female genital cutting. We hope the PBS documentary similarly will generate greater awareness on how child marriage harms girls, their families and communities.

Fortunately, a few enlightened members of Congress are trying to bring an end to child marriage. In late July, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) introduced HR 3175, The International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act of 2007. In August, Sens. Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Chuck Hagel (R-NE) introduced a parallel bill in the Senate, S 1998. The Senate bill currently has 10 co-sponsors and includes the backing of U.S. presidential candidates Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Christopher Dodd (D-CT).

The bipartisan legislation would direct the U.S. State Department to report on child marriage for high-prevalence countries in the annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. Additionally, both bills would authorize modest funds for USAID and other agencies to incorporate child marriage prevention strategies and activities into existing programs on girls' education, maternal and child health, HIV/AIDS, economic opportunities, and legal reform. It would also authorize funds to initiate pilot projects that later would be evaluated to determine best practices in ending child marriage. (See a one-page summary of the House bill here and the Senate bill here.)

Ordinary U.S. citizens serving on a Utah jury didn't allow tradition to exonerate Warren Jeffs. Nor should the U.S. public accept that 14-year-olds who are married off by their parents in Ethiopia or Nigeria is acceptable because it is part of a long tradition in those countries. The same outrage against child marriage in Utah and other parts of the United States should be translated into support for legislation in Congress to wipe out the practice wherever it exists.

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