Protecting Girls: Global Efforts to End Child Marriage

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing, 09/14/16

Child marriage, despite being a widespread and global crisis with a multitude of implications for quality of life, is an often overlooked issue. Today, there are approximately 250 million women who were married before the age of fifteen, with approximately 15 million girls being married annually. Child marriage influences poverty and maternal/child health, and is linked to abuse and gender-based violence. This is a truly global issue, affecting countries throughout the world–and also linked to other human rights issues.

The hearing was presided over by Senator Marco Rubio, and consisted of two panels. The first panel consisted of Anne Richard–Assistant Secretary of Population Refugees and Migration at the Department of State–and Catherine M. Russell–Ambassador-At-Large, Global Women’s Issues, also at the Department of State. The second panel consisted of Lakshmi Sundaram–Executive Director of Girls Not Brides–and Suzanne Petroni–Senior Director, Global Health, Youth And Development at the International Center for Research on Women.

While one’s wedding day is intended to be a public declaration which begins the rest of one’s life, a child bride’s wedding day marks the death of her childhood. Senator Durbin–the first witness of the hearing and a leader at the forefront of this issue–shared a particularly poignant point: what is happening to these young girls and women does not deserve the legal status of marriage. It is not consensual, and it is most often a product of coercion. Child marriage deprives girls of their individual liberties and devalues their human identities, contributes to institutions which perpetuate gender inequality, and fosters practices which have a negative impact on girls’ health. Child marriage is prevalent in all sorts of settings, both rural and urban, though a connection has been observed between areas with high violence and conflict and high child marriage rates.

A very common motive for child marriage–and for parents/guardians approving of child marriage–is security. Many girls are married to older, wealthy men to obtain financial security both for themselves and their families; others are married so that they will not be sexually harassed by local men. This is particularly common among refugees, who will also marry their daughters off to spare them the tribulations of statelessness. In Jordan, for example, child marriage among Syrian girls has become twice as prevalent as it was only two years ago. Child marriage is also increasingly a product of terrorism: groups like Daesh and Boko Haram are known for kidnapping girls as young as 8 years old and marrying them, both to terrorize the families and to subjugate the children through forced conversion (this practice is common in Pakistan).

Child marriage is seen as a negative coping strategy that is justified under the guise of avoiding sexual abuse and promoting legal status in a country by marrying a local. But this practice is linked to other issues such as unequal access to education and economic liberty, as well as to gender-based violence and domestic abuse. Oftentimes, either a girl is married off and so doesn’t finish school, or is incapable of finishing school and so is married off; girls who don’t finish school then make statistically less money than other women. Girls are commonly completely financially dependent on their husbands. Further, girls who become pregnant too young are at risk for many health issues; in child marriages below 18, girls are at much higher risk of pregnancy complication, birth defects, and death in childbirth. Married underage girls are also exponentially more likely to become the victims of domestic abuse at the hands of their husbands. Married children are also at a much higher risk for sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.
Both panels raised questions of state investment in eradicating child marriage, steps which are being taken to do so, and what steps the panelists recommend to congress and the administration as best for moving forward.

Senator Rubio asked the panelists how child marriage is viewed internationally, and whether they agree that globally there are varying degrees of commitment to eradicating child marriage; it was determined that some nations are very committed, some claim interest in ending child marriage (but don’t do much), and some blatantly see child marriage is low priority. And among those countries where child marriage is a high priority, some nations don’t have the resources to enact meaningful change. All panelists agreed that it is integral for the US to continue to make child marriage a high priority, to encourage other nations to take more interest in it, and to encourage local communities to coordinate more with federal governments to invest more in eradicating child marriage (part of this is educating local/regional decision makers more about child marriage). Everyone asserted that ending child marriage has positive economic impact on nations, and often results in an upswing in education and political participation.

Another question which was addressed was how the “decision makers” (the parents, guardians, community leaders who marry girls off) can be involved in ending child marriage. Using the local community as a contact point is integral to starting effective change to systems which support child marriage, particularly if it is possible to involve the people who are actually facilitating these marriages. Many groups which work to end child marriage have members who have been personally affected by child marriage, who then use their personal connections to begin the process of educating people about the negative aspects of this practice.

The question of the legal status of married children was also raised; are young girls who come to the United States with their older husbands considered married? It was determined that it is not likely that US law allows us to do much for girls who are not of legal age in the US but are in their home nation–unless they are looking to escape their marriage, in which case these girls are given asylum as victims of gender-based violence. The panelists also noted that the US can be very effective in protecting american citizens from child marriage, particularly overseas, because jurisdiction allows for more to be done; the US can also be effective in supporting groups who work to end child marriage in other countries.

Lastly, it was asked what has been working best in eradicating and lessening child marriage? And what is the best program or success we have right now? Panelists pointed out that openly fighting child marriage is still a relatively new practice, and so there is a long way to go before success is had–but the best method of addressing this practice has been a comprehensive approach. Lifting girls up by keeping them in school, teaching them skills and about physical and sexual health, reinforcing participation in local communities, and creating support systems for girls will all contribute to creating an environment which is less conducive to child marriage–the issue does not exist in a vacuum.

In closing, several suggestions have been made for how the United States can continue to move forward in ending child marriage. It is important to utilize the powers of congress,and to demand transparency in our progress on this issue. It is also important to involve international organizations, and to lend support and funding to groups fighting child marriage worldwide. Bearing in mind that there is a relationship between child marriage, education, health, etc. but that they are still separate issues is integral. Finally, it is important to keep a close eye on all areas of the broader child marriage issue–particularly already married girls, who are often overlooked and hard to reach, but who are often the most in need of assistance.

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