After attending “Too Young to Wed,” a congressional briefing sponsored by the International Center for Research on Women, I can say that the problem of child marriage is much bigger than I had thought. Additionally, I am convinced that child marriage is a symptom of larger problems in developing countries, all of which are interrelated and stem from poverty.
We were welcomed by Tamara Krenin, the Director of Women and Population at the UN Foundation. The program began with a moving film called “The Bride Price,” providing the audience with background on child marriage, early pregnancies, and the general lack of opportunities that await girls all over the world.
In attendance were two experts who spoke about their work devoted to preventing child marriage. Dr. Anju Malhotra, the Vice President for Social and Economic Development at ICRW, presented some of ICRW’s most recent research findings. The data demonstrated the seriousness of the problem of child marriage in many parts of the world, and primarily in West Africa and South Asia. The studies we viewed showed in various manners that poverty is directly correlated with child marriage. Dr. Malhotra also presented a list of the twenty countries with the highest rate of child marriage—here, child marriage was defined as marriage before the age of eighteen. Of these twenty countries, she explained, fourteen of them are receiving U.S. financial assistance. She made this point in order to say that there are avenues already in place for working to prevent child marriage in many countries.
The second speaker was Mr. Tilahun Giday, the Country Representative for Pathfinder International’s Ethiopia program. Mr. Giday shared his experience as an Ethiopian regarding the many challenges of his organization’s work. Pathfinder International’s mission is to provide women in developing countries with access to reproductive care and health education. Child marriage is of concern to the organization because of its correlation to placing girls at higher risk of contracting HIV and other STDs, developing fistula or dying as a result of obstructed labor.
One frustrating challenge that Mr. Giday recounted is the observation from foreigners that Pathfinder and other organizations represent merely an imposition of Western values upon traditional Ethiopian culture. To counter this idea, he explained that his own sister was married at the age of nine and now has seven children and a very difficult life, and he wishes she had been able to pursue education and her own goals before marrying. In addition, he drew an analogy between the situation of slavery in the United States and the practice of child marriage in countries like Ethiopia, showing how the “cultural relativism” argument would have allowed slavery to continue to be legal, just as it would permit child marriage to go on.
Finally, Ms. Krenin and the representatives from the ICRW encouraged the attendants to consider some of the ways to take action to prevent child marriage from occurring. The most compelling form of action was H.R. 3175, a bill that has been proposed by Member of Congress Betty McCollum from Minnesota. This bill is meant to “prevent child marriage and promote the rights of girls throughout the developing world.” It aims to “enable girls to grow, learn and pass through childhood without being forced into marriage.” The bill is currently co-sponsored by Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Member of Congress from Texas. H.R. 3175 would declare child marriage to be a human rights abuse and make it a foreign policy goal of the U.S. to promote the elimination of child marriage. It would also direct USAID to develop a strategy to prevent child marriage and promote the empowerment of girls, authorize greater integration and coordination of existing U.S. assistance programs to prevent child marriage and promote girls’ success in high incident countries, and authorize $25 million a year for give years to prevent child marriage.
In addition to urging our representatives to support H.R. 3175, Ms. Krenin advised all in attendance to spread the word to our friends, families, and colleagues about the harm being caused by child marriages, and the benefits seen by societies that have learned to prolong marriage. Lastly, Mr. Giday commented that he sees the United States as a nation of generous people who truly care for their brothers and sisters across the world, and he expressed his gratitude for this sentiment.