About the Author: Irene Marr serves as a Foreign Affairs Officer in the Secretary's Office of Global Women's Issues.
I remember first seeing the striking, heartrending images of young Afghan child brides -- girls living in poverty who were forced to marry men old enough to be their fathers or grandfathers -- when the photos appeared in a 2006 Sunday New York Times Magazine essay on the topic of forced early marriage. One of these iconic photos was on display in the U.S. Congress at a briefing on child marriage held by the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on July 15. Such pictures serve as a sobering reminder that the practice of early marriage is still far too common in many parts of the world -- particularly in developing countries where opportunity is lacking and in societies where women and girls are not valued. The briefing put a spotlight on the extent of the problem and its consequences, and underscored the need for an integrated, strategic, and sustained approach to bring an end to this harmful practice.
A panel of experts on women's and children's issues, including Melanne Verveer, Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues, and representatives from the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), CARE International, and UNICEF, provided various perspectives on the phenomenon of child marriage and called for scaling up successful holistic and community-based approaches that have produced positive results. To address the scourge of early marriage, the United States has focused efforts on girls' education, health, and economic empowerment, and has implemented community-based, grassroots programs to encourage families to abandon the practice and keep their girls in school. As Ambassador Verveer noted, "The involvement of fathers, mothers, and religious leaders, as well as building girls' agency through formal education and livelihood training, is crucial to these efforts.”
Some of the most successful programs have enlisted traditional and religious leaders -- trusted members of society whose role is to protect the well-being of children. They are often best positioned to raise awareness, influence parents, and pave the way for change. USAID's extensive basic education program provides one of the surest ways of delaying child marriage by keeping girls in school. In FY 2009, for example, more than 23 million girls benefited from USAID programs in primary and secondary education. With an education, a girl's income potential increases and she is better prepared to contribute to the social, political, and economic life of her community. The panelists agreed that the programs with proven results need to be replicated and expanded in areas where the practice is most prevalent in order to accelerate sustainable change.
Every day, approximately 25,000 girls become child brides. It is estimated that one in seven girls in the developing world is married before she turns 15. Being forced to marry too young, increases a girl's chance that she will become pregnant before she is physically and psychologically ready. Problems associated with pregnancy and childbirth are a leading cause of death for girls aged 15 to 19 worldwide. Girls forced into marriage inevitably must leave school -- their childhoods robbed, their education shortchanged, and their dreams for a future shattered. Beyond the obvious human rights concerns and health consequences of early marriage -- exposing girls to marital rape, domestic violence, high risk pregnancies, HIV/AIDS infection, and the risk of maternal mortality or obstetric fistula, the practice also poses serious implications for development. It is an issue that is inextricably linked to the cycle of poverty. Child marriage is the manifestation of the low status of women and girls in many societies, where the parents see no reason to educate or invest in their daughters, and where females are treated like commodities or chattel.
The briefing ended on a hopeful note, with the personal story of Kakenya Ntaiya, whose courage and inspiration is helping other girls and families choose education and girls' empowerment over early marriage. Growing up in the Masai Village in Kenya, her victory over child marriage is proof positive the social norms that enable the practice to flourish can and must be broken, and that education is key to making this change. Engaged at the age of five to be married upon reaching puberty, she spent her childhood being reminded that her husband “was waiting” for her. With the help of her mother, who wanted a better life for her daughter, Kakenya persevered, negotiated with her father to stay in school, and convinced her community elders that she should go to college. She not only became the first girl from her village to attend college, she is now, at the age of 32, working on her Ph.D., and has opened a school for girls in her home village. “I knew I would overcome,” she said. Indeed, with the Kakenya's School for Excellence, she is living her own dream of building a better future and is helping other girls “become what they dream to become.”