Every day, approximately 39,000 girls under the age of 18 get married. Often committed under the guise of religious or cultural traditions, girls who are married as children are more likely to be forced into sex, drop out of school, experience early and frequent unintended pregnancies, become exposed to HIV, and are at greater risk of intimate partner violence, poverty, and even death. Unfortunately, the list goes on and on in terms of the real-life nightmares these girls are living, with few prospects for escape. Child brides are robbed of their youth, their education, their health and their futures.
As a key player in shaping global development priorities—priorities that include education, health care, food security, economic empowerment and ending violence against women and girls—the United States has an important role in ending early and forced marriage worldwide. We can’t achieve real, sustainable development without protecting and securing the right of all girls to decide if, when and whom they marry. The importance of ending child marriage has received an increasing amount of attention in recent years, and political will to address the issue is hopefully at a tipping point. Now is the time for the U.S. government to translate this rhetoric into more dollars invested strategically in policies and programs to prevent child marriage and support girls who are already married.
With the recent passage of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), Secretary of State John Kerry now has a legislative mandate to produce a multisectoral and multiyear strategy to end child marriage.
The multisectoral aspect of the legislative mandate is important because there is a diversity of root causes of child marriage, including gender inequality, poverty and religious and customary practices. Therefore, the solutions to end child marriage must be equally diverse and cover a range of sectors (such as health, education and economic empowerment) to provide a holistic and comprehensive response that addresses the full needs of married and unmarried girls.
Specifically, ending child marriage requires investing in policies and programs that:
- Are coordinated across relevant U.S. agencies and bureaus and focused on building girls’ health, social, and economic assets, and promoting gender-equitable and pro-girl social norms;
- Include partnership with other donors and national governments in specific sub-national districts;
- Increase work directly with married girls, or girls at-risk for early marriage as a core constituency, offering them information, skills, and support networks, including girl-only spaces;
- Integrate activities for preventing early marriage and supporting married adolescents into existing programs, including those focused on improving outcomes related to maternal health, HIV/AIDS, economic empowerment, food security, and education.
- Define and evaluate change at the level of the girl, as well as her family and community, over time;
- Educate and mobilize parents, religious and traditional leaders, and community members;
- Enhance the accessibility and quality of schooling for girls;
- Offer economic support and incentives for girls and their families; and
- Foster an enabling legal and policy framework.
As co-chair of Girls Not Brides USA, the International Women’s Health Coalition is working to ensure the U.S. government, working across relevant bureaus and agencies, develops and implements a comprehensive strategy to end child marriage. This includes appropriating the necessary funds to fully execute the strategy, as well as monitoring efforts and measuring progress toward meeting our goals.
An estimated 140 million girls will become child brides between 2011 and 2020. Failure to prioritize the development and implementation of comprehensive policies and programs for married and unmarried girls is ultimately a failure to help girls who need it most to live healthy, safe, educated and empowered lives.
You can help: join the 50 Days of Action for Women and Girls campaign by tweeting with the hashtags #usa4girls and #usa4women and calling upon the U.S. government to do its part to end this egregious violation of human rights.
Our future prospects as a global community depend on whether we choose to take decisive and strategic action now. Girls simply cannot and should not have to wait any longer.
Let’s give girls a choice, and a chance, for a real future.