Ending Child Marriage and U.S. Foreign Policy Goals
August 21, 2013
Paige Munger, Intern
Global Health Policy Center, Center for Strategic and International Studies
Last month, a video of an 11-year-old Yemeni girl fleeing her home to avoid a forced marriage to an older man went viral. The young girl, Nada Al-Ahdal, speaks powerfully against child marriage, saying, “What about the innocence of childhood? I managed to solve my problem, but some innocent children can't solve theirs, and they might die, commit suicide…I'm not the only one. It can happen to any child.”
Janet Fleischman, Rachel Vogelstein, and Caren Grown
Nada’s story sheds light on the pressing issue of child marriage. The practice of child marriage is found across cultures and in every region on the globe. According to the United Nations, one in three women in the developing world—some 70 million—were married under the age of 18. Over 23 million of these women were married under the age of 15.
A practice driven by endemic poverty, entrenched cultural traditions, and systematic discrimination and devaluation of women and girls, child marriage is a clear violation of human rights. Child brides are denied their childhood, taken out of school, faced with severely limited opportunities and subjected to increased risk of violence, abuse, and poor health.
On July 31, the CSIS Global Health Policy Center hosted an event on how ending child marriage advances U.S. foreign policy. The discussion featured Rachel Vogelstein, author of a recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations entitled, “Ending Child Marriage: How Elevating the Status of Girls Advances U.S. Foreign Policy Objectives;” and Caren Grown, USAID’s acting senior coordinator for gender equality and women’s empowerment. (Audio and video from the event are available here.)
Rachel Vogelstein argued that ending child marriage is both a strategic and moral imperative for U.S. foreign policy. In particular, she identified three U.S. foreign policy goals that are undercut by child marriage: economic development, global health, and security. By curtailing girls’ education, child marriage stifles a country’s economic progress, since increases in national income growth are strongly associated with prolonging girls’ education. In relation to global health, child marriage often leads to early pregnancy and childbirth, which is the leading cause of death for girls age 15-19 in the developing world. Young mothers give birth to children who face a much higher risk of mortality, low birth weight, and malnutrition. Further, child marriage increases a girl’s risk of domestic and sexual violence as well as HIV infection. Finally, recent research suggests that child marriage is associated with instability. Most of the 25 countries with the highest prevalence of child marriage are either fragile states or are prone to natural disasters. Parents in these countries often resort to child marriage to lessen their financial burden and to preserve their resources. However, the practice actually contributes to further poverty, poor health, and instability in the long term.
The issue of child marriage has been elevated in the U.S. policy agenda in recent years. Caren Grown described the U.S. government approach, articulated in USAID’s document, “Ending Child Marriage and Meeting the Needs of Married Children: The USAID Vision for Action.” She noted that combating child marriage forms part of USAID’s broader policies on gender equality and women’s empowerment, and on gender-based violence. However, USAID does not have funds for stand-alone programs on child marriage. Grown highlighted programs in Ethiopia, Bangladesh, and India, underscoring the need to integrate child marriage into other development programming. A significant new development in U.S. policy was the passage of the Violence Against Women Act in March 2013; the bill mandates that the Secretary of State develop a U.S. strategy to combat child marriage.
Moving forward, three main priority actions emerged from the discussion. First, given current budget restrictions and the centrality of child marriage to many other foreign policy issues, child marriage programming should be integrated in other existing programs. Vogelstein suggests that this integration primarily take place in the related areas of: maternal and child health, family planning, girls' secondary education, and rule of law. Second, more attention should be paid to best practices research, as well as the development of better indicators and metrics. Finally, the U.S. government should incorporate the issue of child marriage in its strategic diplomatic dialogue with high prevalence countries, seek to form effective partnerships across countries and sectors to combat child marriage, and work to ensure that the issue maintains an important place in the post-2015 process of shaping development goals.