Nearly 200 advocates, policy experts, and US government officials came together Thursday at Girl Summit DC to discuss emerging research on child marriage and share effective strategies for ending the practice.
International Women’s Health Coalition President Françoise Girard kicked off the daylong event by reminding advocates and government officials that solutions to child, early, and forced marriage require a holistic approach. “The way to move forward in the fight against child marriage is to put adolescent girls at the center of everything we do,” Girard said.
Since the first-ever Girl Summit held last year in London, the United States has joined other countries in pledging to invest in efforts to end child and forced marriage globally. Every year, approximately 15 million girls are forced into marriage—a practice with disastrous lifelong impacts on women’s health, education, autonomy, and safety. Child marriage forces young women to leave school, limiting their educational and professional opportunities, as well as their potential for financial independence. Without access to accurate information about their sexual and reproductive health and rights, girls who marry young often have early pregnancies, raising their risk of childbirth complications, which can be fatal or leave them with lifelong medical injuries.
IWHC supported grassroots activists and child marriage survivors from Cameroon to participate in the summit and share their experiences with Members of Congress and officials in the U.S. Department of State. Underscoring the gravity of the situation in Cameroon, activists pointed to a recent study finding that 89 percent of respondents believed that a girl should be married off before she has her first menstruation.
“When we look at the root causes of child marriage, we know that patriarchal culture is driving this practice,” said Sike Bille of the Association to Combat Violence Against Women of the Extreme North in Cameroon (ALVF-EN), which conducted the study in partnership with the University of Maroua. “As long as we remain shackled by this tradition of child marriage in our communities, any humanitarian efforts will be short-lived. We have to work on the ground to change this mindset, to stop this blindness to the rights of girls.”
Another Cameroonian activist, Danedjo Hadidja, shared her own experience of being forced into a marriage at age 15—to a man almost three times her age. “No one told me I had the right to say no,” she said.
Danedjo was able to escape with the support of ALVF-EN, and today she and other survivors lead community workshops with girls, their parents, and community leaders to speak out against the practice. “We work with girls so that they know their rights, they know the law,” said Danedjo. “But it’s hard for girls to disobey their fathers, so we also work with traditional chiefs to influence men not to force their daughters to marry.”
In a High-Level Panel moderated by Rachel Vogelstein of the Council on Foreign Relations, leaders of several government agencies discussed what the US government is currently doing to end child marriage. Catherine Russell, US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, spoke about the forthcoming Adolescent Girls Strategy—a whole-of-government initiative of the Obama Administration to improve the lives of girls around the world. The strategy will take a comprehensive approach to the needs of girls, from ending child marriage to keeping girls in school to ensuring access to health care, including sexual and reproductive health.
“When women do well, countries do well,” said Ambassador Russell. “We’re talking to countries about this at the diplomatic level. It’s the right thing to do, but it’s also in their interest to do so.”
Ambassador Russell’s comments were echoed by her colleagues and copanelists: Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet, USAID Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Susan Markham, Millennium Challenge Corporation Chief Executive Officer Dana Hyde, and US Department of State’s Office of the US Global AIDS Coordinator and Health Diplomacy Chief of Staff Angeli Achrekar.
IWHC’s Girard concluded the summit, saying, “there’s a real sense now the United States is ready to move from rhetoric to action.” She stressed that there is no one single intervention that is the solution to end child marriage, adding that governments and civil society need to work together to challenge harmful gender norms at the root of child marriage.
In addition to IWHC, Girl Summit DC was cosponsored by the American Jewish World Service, CARE USA, Center for Global Development, Girls Not Brides USA, Human Rights Watch, International Center for Research on Women, Population Council, and Promundo.
Read our Storify of live-tweets from the event.