Human rights abuses are often cloaked in the mantle of cultural or religious tradition, which makes them particularly difficult to address: if you condemn harmful practices as the rights violations they are, you risk being accused of undermining someone's cultural values. But culture, like everything else, is dynamic, and traditions change. Religious texts are often interpreted selectively or downright inaccurately in order to concentrate and maintain power in privileged hands. And if a cultural tradition promotes discriminatory, oppressive, or even deadly practices directed at a particular group, it raises more than a few questions about who is being excluded from that cultural conversation.
Violations of women's and young people's rights are often framed in these culturally convenient terms, and thus deemed too taboo to be tampered with by such subjective instruments as, say, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Few groups are more vulnerable to these kinds of machinations than girls, since they are doubly disempowered by their age and by their gender. And child marriage–which, despite several international agreements and national laws condemning it, is still widely practiced, primarily in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa–is a prime example of this phenomenon. More than 25,000 girls (some only 9 or 10 years old) are married to older men in developing countries every single day, and if things continue as they currently are, another 100 million girls will be married worldwide over the next decade.
The International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act, introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) in July of this year, would take concrete steps to prevent child marriage in the countries where girls are most vulnerable by generating political commitment to address child marriage as a human rights abuse, and by developing and expanding bottom-up, grassroots strategies to support and empower girls. The bill, which currently enjoys the bipartisan support of 18 co-sponsors in the House, would authorize $25 million per year over the next five years to expand and strengthen existing community-based programs proven to be effective at empowering girls and preventing child marriage, as well as establish new pilot projects and share lessons learned. At the local level, it would result in greater investments in girls' schooling and the creation of more safe community spaces and skills development programs for girls. At the policy level, it would declare child marriage to be a human rights abuse (see Article 16 of the UDHR), make the elimination of child marriage a U.S. foreign policy goal, and mandate the creation of a U.S. strategy for preventing child marriage and promoting girls' empowerment worldwide. Thus, the bill would provide much-needed financial and technical support to community-led efforts, while simultaneously generating political commitment and pressure from above.
The need for this kind of commitment and pressure is more urgent than ever, since the growth of the HIV/AIDS pandemic has intensified the dangers associated with early marriage for girls worldwide. Early marriage has always put young women at risk from a sexual and reproductive health perspective: girls often enter their marriages with little to no information about their own bodies and are expected to bear children (preferably sons) as soon as possible. The younger they are, the more dangerous this can be for their current and future reproductive health. Since they are expected to demonstrate their fertility immediately, condoms are out of the question. And because they are often married to much older men who have usually already had many sexual partners (or may already have one or more wives), unprotected sex can be deadly. As Rep. McCollum points out, "The United States invests billions of dollars in aid and support for the developing world each year, yet child marriage not only destroys girls' lives, it undermines the very investments in HIV prevention, maternal health and child survival that we are already making. By focusing educational and economic opportunities on girls, we will improve their lives, strengthen their communities, and make our development efforts more effective."
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To help move the Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act forward, contact your member of Congress and ask them to co-sponsor the bill.