Generally speaking, in the United States, parents of a four- or five-year-old girl would be preparing her for pre-school or kindergarten. She’d likely know how to recite the alphabet, count, spell some words, and work a computer. She might already be reading. As she got older, she’d look forward to being one of the “big kids” in elementary and then junior high school, perhaps joining her first sports team, learning an instrument, running for student government or engaging in other personal interests. She could aspire to a life of her choosing–perhaps by attending college and graduate school, building a career, following a passion, and if she desired, building a family. You know…the aspirations you have for your daughter, your god-child, your sisters, nieces, cousins, and the children of your friends.
In many countries of the world, however, things would be very different. The parents of that four-year-old would already be prepping her for marriage. From a very early age, she’d learn to be subservient to the males in her family, spend much of her time doing domestic chores and housework, and helping her mother tend her younger siblings. She might learn to read some or not at all. Her parents might send her to school initially, but when funds got tight or to protect the family “honor” they’d pull her out before she finished elementary school so she could earn income for her family, and, all too soon, marry.
In fact, one in three girls in the “developing” world marry before they are 18 years old. One in seven girls is married before age 15. In short, in this world, nearly a third of the young women that make up the junior and varsity field hockey teams at my daughter’s Maryland suburban high school would be married and already having children before they would otherwise have played their last high school game.
While age-at-marriage has risen and continues to rise in many countries throughout the world–with positive implications for both demographic trends and economic development–child marriage remains a persistent problem in many regions of the world, including the rural and peri-urban areas of many otherwise rapidly modernizing countries, such as India.
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“The reasons for child marriage vary,” write Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, and Desmond Tutu, archbishop emeritus of Cape Town, South Africa in a Washington Post op-ed:
Custom, poverty and lack of education all play a part. Boys are married young, too, but a far greater number of girls are affected and it has a much more devastating impact on their lives. Because they are young, child brides are relatively powerless in their families and often lack access to health information. This makes them more vulnerable to serious injury and death in childbirth – the leading cause of death in girls in the developing world ages 15 to 19. Child brides are also more likely to experience domestic violence and to live in poverty than women who marry later.
Today there are some 60 million women ages 20 to 24 who were married before the age of 18. And if current trends persist, there will be 100 million by 2020. “Some of these girls,” writes Adrienne Germain, president of the International Women’s Health Coalition:
will be as young as seven and all will be forced into sex, usually with much older men, making them more vulnerable to injury and death from childbirth, violence, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
Apart from the obvious individual ramifications, “child marriage also undermines U.S. foreign assistance to developing countries,” said Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) in a recent statement.
We invest in education and skills-building for girls, improving maternal and child health, ending the transmission of HIV/AIDS, preventing gender-based violence, and reducing poverty. But where the girls targeted for assistance are married, these development strategies only go so far.
Preventing child marriage would therefore have a tremendous positive synergy in achieving major international development goals such as improving health and nutrition, eliminating HIV and AIDS, increasing educational attainment, and increasing economic security among the poorest populations in the world.
Moreover, ending child marriage helps secures the basic dignity and human rights of more than one-half the world’s population. “The human rights community has rightly identified the practice of child marriage as a major concern that treats young girls as property and traps them in a life of servitude,” Durbin said.
It denies girls educational and economic opportunities, sustaining a cycle of poverty in some of the world’s poorest countries. Many child brides live their lives in crushing hopelessness. Some are driven to attempt suicide to escape their misery.
Tomorrow, the United States House of Representatives will vote on the International Protecting Girls By Preventing Child Marriage Act, a bill that passed the U.S. Senate by unanimous consent on December 1, 2010. Yes…all 100 Senate Democrats and Republicans voted in favor of Senate Bill 987. It can’t get more bipartisan than that. But the House still needs to pass it and send it on to President Obama to sign into law.
The bill calls for the following:
- A multi-year strategy developed by the President to prevent child marriage in developing countries.
- The inclusion by the Department of State of formal reporting on child marriage in its annual Human Rights Reports.
- The integration of child marriage prevention strategies throughout U.S. foreign policy and development programs, therefore making our foreign aid more effective.
- Scaling up of successful approaches to prevent child marriage.
In short, this bill seeks to ensure that our policies and funding are comprehensive, coordinated, and have the maximum effectiveness in ending a serious violation of human rights while promoting development goals on which we have labored for decades.
It’s a no-brainer. But in these times of political jockeying, nothing is assured, so advocates are calling on everyone who cares about human rights and human development to contact their members and urge them to vote for this bill.
You can join them here. There isn’t a lot of time.