It is a stunning figure: at least 720 million women alive today were child brides, married before their 18th birthday. If current trends continue, 150 million more girls will be forced into marriage over the next decade. That's an average of 15 million girls each year.

Child marriage is defined as a either a formal marriage or informal union where one or both spouses is below the age of 18. Child marriage is a severe violation of girls' human rights. When girls are forced into marriage, they're usually pulled out of school, robbed of their chance for an education. Additionally, young girls who are married against their will are more vulnerable to physical and sexual violence, sexual coercion, and severe complications as a result of having children before their bodies are ready.

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On a global level, the practice hinders efforts to prevent and end global poverty. As long as girls are pulled out of school, subjected to abuse, and are left unable to pursue economic opportunities to provide for their families, entire communities - and countries - will continue to fall behind.

Recognizing that child marriage is a barrier to global development, Congress passed and the president signed into law core components of the International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act in the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013. Thanks to this law, for the first time in history, child marriage is a priority concern of U.S. foreign policy. This was a huge moment; the legislation passed with strong bipartisan support and was celebrated by advocates and girls themselves the world over. For the first time, the U.S. government put a stake in the ground, telling the world we know that child marriage is a devastating problem with lifelong consequences and we know that we must work to prevent the practice where it exists.

This week, as the world celebrates the International Day of the Girl, it's important that we refocus our commitment, and renew our support to end this human rights violation. When we do this, we must ensure that our work is informed by valuable research that sheds light on which pathways provide us with the most impactful results for our investment.

A recent study by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) evaluated an initiative to provide cash incentives to families in a state in India to keep their daughters unmarried until the age of 18, given that poverty is so often a driver of early marriage. The findings show that money alone is not sufficient to enhance girls’ value in the eyes of their parents and community members.
While no silver bullet will once and for all end child marriage, we know that there are real steps communities and governments can implement that are proven to prevent child marriage. NGOs like ICRW and the Population Council are providing a pathway forward, highlighting the most important elements to preventing and ending early and forced marriage: investing in girls directly, providing them with opportunities to thrive, and teaching them about their rights. We must work with communities to ensure that when girls are empowered, they are not stifled by deep-seated gender norms that inhibit their abilities and rights. We must also alleviate the economic factors that push families to marry off their daughters while they are still children.

In countries where child marriage is prevalent, we can and should develop policy frameworks that promote girls' empowerment and proactively work to end child marriage, such as national strategies and action plans to end child marriage. For example, India has a national child marriage policy and next month many African nations will convene under the auspices of the African Union in a Girl Summit to compare successful strategies to delay marriage and increase alternative opportunities for girls.

The United States government can be a strong ally to these communities and countries. As directed by Congress, the U.S. Department of State is leading an interagency process to develop an Adolescent Girl Strategy. A core focus of this strategy must be on ways to better use the tools in the American foreign policy tool kit to end child marriage. That means directing diplomats to take up the issue of child marriage in their strategic dialogues with their counterparts in global child marriage hotspots. Once the strategy is released, Congress must fund it and ensure USAID has the resources they need to invest in programs that empower young women and their families. 

With 15 million girls forced into marriage each year, the need for action is clear. Every day we fail to act, forced marriage becomes the fate of hundreds of more young women and girls. But we can end that cycle - we just have to choose to act now.

Kambou is president of the International Center for Research on Women. McCollum has represented Minnesota’s 4th Congressional District since 2001. She sits on the Appropriations Committee.