On December 9, 2013, the IWHC Leadership Council hosted a special luncheon discussion with Rachel Vogelstein, Director of Women and Girls Programs at the Clinton Foundation and a Fellow with the Women and Foreign Policy Program of the Council on Foreign Relations. She is also the author of the recently published Council on Foreign Relations report: “Ending Child Marriage: How Elevating the Status of Girls Advances U.S. Foreign Policy Objectives.”
More than 50 members of IWHC’s Leadership Council attended the lunch event. IWHC Board Chair Marlene Hess opened the discussion with shocking statistics about child marriage, including the facts that 1 in 9 girls will be married before the age of 15, and complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of deaths for girls aged 15-19 in regions where child marriage is prevalent. Hess stressed IWHC’s commitment to ending child marriage and noted its long track record of advocacy on the issue with the U.S. government, at the United Nations, and in countries where the problem is deeply persistent.
Following the opening remarks, IWHC President Françoise Girard and Vogelstein took the stage to address why ending child marriage is not only a moral imperative but also a priority for U.S. foreign policy. Vogelstein said that under President Obama, the U.S. government has recognized gender equality as an integral part of U.S. foreign policy, noting that countries that offer the same opportunities and choices to women as it does to men are more peaceful and prosperous. Because child marriage often robs a girl of her education and ability to determine her own future, it’s a major barrier to gender equality and economic prosperity.
Violence against women is another critical barrier to the security and stability of countries. Countries with active conflict zones or where violence against women is prevalent are also likely to have higher rates of child and forced marriage. As Vogelstein said, “the 25 countries with the highest rates of child marriage are fragile states or are at risk of natural disaster.” Both Vogelstein and Girard stressed that child marriage itself is a form of violence against women. Girls who are married before they are 18 are at much greater risk for marital rape and physical abuse inside a marriage.
Vogelstein commended IWHC in its successful advocacy efforts with the U.S. Congress on the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which was reauthorized earlier this year and specifically called for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to develop a comprehensive, multiyear strategy to end child marriage globally. Both Girard and Vogelstein noted this was a crucial step for the U.S. government toward recognizing child marriage as an endemic problem in the developing world. Girard said more advocacy needs to be done, however, and IWHC and its partners will continue to work with the State Department and USAID to make this strategy a reality.
After taking some questions from the audience, Girard closed the discussion with a question of her own: What does former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton plan to do now that she’s left the administration? “I’m not breaking any news today,” Vogelstein replied with a laugh, saying she could only speak to the work Clinton will be doing in the foundation’s Women and Girls Programs. She gave the audience a brief overview of the foundation’s “No Ceilings” project, which looks at the progress made on women’s issues since the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, and will analyze what is left to be achieved and develop a new agenda for women and girls for the 21st century.