US Senate Passes Child Marriage Prevention Act, Global Momentum to Protect Girls Growing

US Senate Passes Child Marriage Prevention Act, Global Momentum to Protect Girls Growing

While global health and policy efforts to protect young girls from early or forced marriage are increasing, millions of girls are forced into early marriage every year. Pictured: four Senegalese girls. {Photo credit: S. Galdos/MSH.}Photo credit: S. Galdos/MSH.

If you think that child marriage is not an issue in the twenty-first century, think again.  In developing countries, 82 million girls who are now ages 10 to 17 will be married before their 18th birthday. Over the past decade, 58 million girls in developing countries -- one in three -- have been married under the age of 18; 15 million -- one in nine -- were married by age 15.

These girls are often married against their will, despite national laws that prohibit marriage until the age of 18, and numerous international declarations, conventions, and global conferences that “guarantee” the rights of girls, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Senate Passes Preventing Child Marriage Act

Child marriage is increasingly becoming a hot topic within the realm of global health -- and influencing U.S. domestic and global policy.

The International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act (S. 414) -- reintroduced in the U.S. Congress in February 2011 --- passed on the Senate floor by way of voice vote on May 24, 2012. (The bill also passed the Senate unanimously in December 2010.)

Key tenets of the Senate bill include expanding investments at the community level to empower girls, promoting community understanding about the harmful impact of marriage, and requiring the U.S. government to develop a strategy to prevent child marriage.

If passed by both chambers of Congress, the U.S. government will be committed to policy that protects girls from marriage on a global scale.

This recent legislative victory indicates that the issue of child marriage can rise above the politics that have mired progress on other important issues impacting women and girls, and illustrates that support exists on Capitol Hill and beyond to end child marriage.

Domestic and Global Policy Momentum Building

Momentum to prevent child marriage and protect girls is building.  The fiscal year 2012 State Foreign Operations bill report -- the bill under which global health programs are funded --- includes child marriage report language.  Also, during a recent Congressional Delegation to Bangladesh -- a trip to Bangladesh taken by members of Congress paid for by the federal government -- child marriage policies and programs were topics of discussion, further signifying Congress’s interest in the topic of child marriage.

Moreover, the U.S. Global Health Initiative, an initiative that has combined the skills of U.S. Government agencies to overcome global health challenges that threaten lives at home and around the world, has one of its eight principles focusing on women, girls, and gender equality.

On the global policy front, the United Nations approved the International Day of the Girl Child on December 19, 2011, after a youth-led advocacy campaign by the Youth Activism Project and School Girls Unite , along with organizations such as Plan International.

Two exciting examples of global support for addressing child marriage happened just last month.

Early or forced marriage was included in the G8 Foreign Ministers Meeting Chair’s Statement on April 12:

“The Ministers expressed grave concern about the continued practice of female genital mutilation and early or forced marriage in some parts of the world. The Ministers note that early or forced marriage can reduce the opportunities of young married girls to complete their education, gain comprehensive knowledge, participate in community, or develop employable skills; makes girls more vulnerable to violence; and violate or undermines full enjoyment of human rights of women and girls.”

During the 45th session of the Commission on Population and Development (CPD) at the United Nations April 23 – 27, the delegates agreed to a strong resolution in support of young people’s sexual and reproductive health and human rights.  The major points that came from the resolution can all be related to child marriage, including: (1) The right of young people to decide on all matters related to their sexuality; (2) Access to sexual and reproductive health services, including safe abortion where legal, that respect confidentiality and do not discriminate; (3) The right of youth to comprehensive sexuality education; and (4) Protection and promotion of young people’s right to control their sexuality free from violence, discrimination and coercion.

Ending Child Marriage: The Road Ahead

Even with the aforementioned successes, there is still a long journey ahead to end the practice of child marriage, particularly because it is engrained in societies due to religious and cultural norms.  There is a great need for more global advocacy and political and financial will around the issue.  The private sector, U.S. Government, multilateral organizations, and national governments will need to work together to ensure that policies and programs are developed and implemented that aim to end child marriage.

I am hopeful that this can occur in our lifetime, providing human rights victories for countless of young women globally!

Chanell Hasty, MA, is policy and advocacy coordinator of MSH’s Office of Strategic Development and Communications.

MSH has been actively engaged in activities to mitigate the implications of child marriage, such as promoting equal access to health care for women and girls in more than 135 countries for over four decades. MSH recently joined Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage, a partnership of over 100 organizations working to end child marriage all over the world. Domestically, MSH is a member of U.S. Child Marriage Coalition which is now Girls Not Brides USA.

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