Mark Engman is Director of Public Policy and Advocacy for the U.S. Fund for UNICEF.
At a packed hearing of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on July 15, 2010, representatives from leading humanitarian organizations, including UNICEF, spoke out against child marriage as a harmful traditional practice and a gross human rights violation that puts young girls at risk and keeps them mired in poverty.
|Office of Rep. McCollum|
|Rep. Betty McCollum speaking during the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission hearing on child marriage. Listening to her statement is Rep. Jim McGovern, who chairs the Commission.|
UNICEF Senior Child Protection Specialist Francesca Moneti told Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), the Commission’s chair, that child marriage affects millions of girls in all regions of the world, especially in South Asia and in Africa. In Bangladesh and in five western central African countries, six of every 10 girls are married before the age of 18.
Not only does child marriage generally cut off a girl’s education, but Francesca also highlighted the severe health risks that child marriage brings for girls. Girls under age 15 are five times more likely to die in pregnancy and childbirth than women ages 20 to 24. She also described how early pregnancy severely affects the growth and nutrition status of both the girl and her baby – causing stunting for both of them.
|U.S. Fund for UNICEF/Rendon|
|Francesca Moneti presenting her statement to the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.|
But Francesca’s message was hardly doom and gloom. In fact, she emphasized that UNICEF and its partners can show significant progress in convincing parents to abandon the practice of child marriage. What surprised me most was Francesca’s description of how UNICEF changes peoples’ minds – not by condemning parents who marry their girls as bad people, but by recognizing that most parents are trying to do what they think is best for their girls.
As a parent of a nine-year-old girl myself, that was a little hard to accept, but the more Francesca explained it, it made total sense. In societies where child marriage is common, families continue the practice because they believe that their society expects it, and they believe that it is in the girls’ and families’ best interests. For example, early marriage is a way for parents to ensure that a girl has food, or avoids pregnancy outside marriage.
When parents – and girls themselves – are able to hear the facts about child marriage, in a context of respect and appreciation, and from respected sources, that starts a process of conversion that ultimately leads entire communities to abandon the practice of child marriage. Not over a span of decades, but within a few years. For example, in Senegal, UNICEF works with the acclaimed NGO Tostan to implement the Community Empowerment Program. This program engages community members, including religious and traditional leaders, in a dialog on social and health issues including child marriage. These leaders understand that child marriage hurts their girls, their families, and their communities – and they take that message back to their own social groups. Once the process starts, it spreads quickly; over the past ten years, more than four thousand communities in Senegal have declared their abandonment of child marriage.
Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN), who attended the hearing, noted that the U.S. Congress still needs to pass her legislation, the International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act (H.R. 2103) this year. This bipartisan legislation would require a comprehensive strategy to prevent child marriage and empower young girls, integrate child marriage prevention approaches throughout U.S. foreign assistance programs, and authorize funding to scale up proven approaches and programs to end the practice.
YOU CAN HELP by contacting your Member of Congress to cosponsor H.R. 2103!