Jennifer Redner, a consultant to the International Women's Health Coalition on U.S. foreign policy issues related to the health and rights of women and girls, explained that the act is an opportunity to shed light on the worldwide plague of child marriage, which undermines both efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the effectiveness of U.S. development programmes abroad.
For example, in many developing countries, the leading causes of death for teenage girls are complications related to pregnancy and childbirth. For girls married at age 14 and younger, their chance of dying in pregnancy or childbirth is five times greater than for those aged 20-24.
Marriage can also put girls at higher risk for contracting HIV/AIDS. A study of girls aged 15 to 19 in Kisumu, Kenya found that nearly 33 percent of married girls were HIV- positive, compared to 22.3 percent of their sexually active, unmarried peers.
Excerpts from the interview follow.
Q: How does child marriage affect girls' futures?
A: Whether it occurs in developed or developing countries, child marriage undermines the health and human rights of girls. Worldwide, more than 60 million girls between the ages of 20 and 24 were married before the age of 18 – often at the encouragement of their parents and often to much older men - with no say in the decision.
Child marriage can often lead to death during pregnancy and childbirth, and young brides also are more likely to experience gender-based violence, and are highly vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. Every girl deserves a choice and the chance to chart the course of her life, and this legislation will help make this a reality for girls worldwide.
Q: How can the United States enforce the act in other countries?
A: The International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act has several key pieces that together will provide a range of tools and support for addressing the issue of early/forced marriage.
Through its Human Rights Report, the State Department will report on the practice in countries where the practice is prevalent. This will send a signal to country governments that the U.S. considers this practice to be a human rights violation.
Currently, the U.S. invests billions of dollars in foreign assistance programmes, such as health, education, and poverty alleviation – much of which is administered through USAID. In areas where the practice is prevalent, implementation of the legislation will ensure that the issue of child marriage is integrated into current U.S. programmes.
Currently, the U.S., primarily through USAID, supports some programmes aimed at working with communities to address this issue and prevent more girls from being married before they are physically or emotionally ready. Yet, there is no overarching strategy or action plan to address the issue in a comprehensive way. Therefore, a critical part of the legislation is that it calls for the White House to develop a strategy to end this practice.
Q: Some governments have adopted laws in recent years to raise the minimum age of marriage to 18. How effective are such progressive laws?
A: Countries that have a minimum age at marriage and are looking to enforce this law must work with communities to find lasting solutions. Working with fathers, mothers, and community leaders is critical to end child marriage and change the perceptions and value placed on girls. Raising the minimum age at marriage is important, but it is definitely not the only piece that is needed to succeed in these efforts.
Q: Child marriages seem difficult to stop because they are part of the private sphere, and because of the burden of tradition.
A: Early and forced marriages are considered to be a form of violence against women. The idea that violence against women is also part of the private sphere, and therefore should not be broached, is an argument we have heard before.
We believe in the right of every woman and girl to a healthy and just life, and when violence of any kind is occurring we as an international community have the responsibility to respond by working with communities to transform norms and behaviour that implicitly or explicitly condone these human rights violations.
Many families see girls as an economic burden, some see no value in girls compared to a boy. Some are so concerned their daughter might get pregnant before marriage they see early marriage as a safe haen, when in fact, the opposite is the case. Changing these perceptions and myths requires education, including comprehensive sexuality education programmes that stress human rights and gender equality, including the right to refuse marriage. So education in its many forms is necessary, as is building up the economic and social assets of girls so they have alternatives to marriage available to them.
Our partners in Asia, Africa and Latin America are working with local communities to help prevent or eliminate early and forced marriage.
In Cameroun and Nigeria, for example, IWHC's partners are creating incentives and promoting campaigns for the elimination of child marriage among community leaders and organisations. These local leaders stress the benefits to girls' health and human rights, as well as the health of entire communities. Through education and awareness, local communities are ending the harmful practice; they recognise that child marriage inhibits a girl's ability to pass safely into marriage and adulthood.