Adolescence is known as a time of great social, emotional and physical change. Whether those experiences are positive or negative can vary profoundly. For some, it is a time of transition from childhood to adulthood, while gaining independence and being supported to pursue dreams. However, for the nearly 15 million girls per year who are married before the age of 18, adolescence is a time when childhood, opportunity and aspirations can abruptly come to an end. Child brides are thrust into a world where they have little voice over the decisions that impact them the most. But there is a solution: the U.S. government has an obligation and an interest in empowering these girls through development and diplomatic efforts.
The overwhelming majority of the world’s adolescent girls live in developing countries. It is estimated that there are 600 million girls between the ages of 10 and 19, and that 130 million girls globally who should be in school are not. For 15 million girls a year, adolescence equals marriage. “Child marriage,” a formal or informal union where one or both parties are under 18, disproportionately impacts girls, who are often married to much older men.
Child marriage occurs across regions, religions and cultures and is considered a “harmful practice” because of its negative consequences on girls’ lives. Their immediate and long-term health, education, economic prospects and safety are all put at risk by being married as a child. In fact, complications in pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death in girls 15-19 globally and 90 percent of adolescent pregnancies in the developing world occur to girls who are already married. In multiple countries, half of married girls have experienced violence by their husbands; and in Uganda, HIV prevalence for girls aged 15-19 is higher for married girls (89 percent) than unmarried girls (66 percent).
The practice is rooted in inequitable gender norms that place boys’ rights, education and economic successes above those of girls. While girls’ rights and needs are viewed as unimportant, management of girls’ sexuality is considered necessary to maintain familial honor, tied to girls’ “purity.” Perhaps the most stark example of this is the practice of female genital mutilation and/or cutting (FGM/C).
Sometimes done in preparation for marriage, the procedure removes parts of a girl’s external genitalia. There is no medical reason for performing FGM/C, and while the stated rationale behind the practice varies, it is deeply rooted in the desire to control girls’ sexuality.
If the world is going to see reductions in violence against women, HIV infections or poverty, it must tackle child marriage and related practices head on. This includes the U.S. government.
In comments at “Overcoming Challenges, Empowering Girls,” which was co-sponsored by Girls Not Brides USA and the FGM Network, in cooperation with the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) noted that, “The people who have the most to teach us are those who have been most effected.” Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), who also participated in the event, said, "I want to be able to visit any village in any country and meet girls who have control over their destiny."
Congress showing support is critical to ensuring that girls are not forgotten in U.S. foreign assistance. Programs and policies that support adolescent girls give them the opportunity to lead empowered lives and successfully transition into healthy, safe and successful adulthoods. Additionally, evidence shows that investments in girls return yields in areas such as economic growth and health for families and communities.
Congressional support is a major reason the U.S. Government has taken steps to empower girls, prevent child marriage and end FGM/C in the past. In large part because of Congressional pressure through the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization of 2013, the U.S. government has shown global leadership in the creation of a holistic U.S. Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls. The Strategy makes empowerment of girls a goal across the “whole-of-government” by involving four agencies in developing solutions that impact the whole of girls’ lives. The Strategy acknowledges that there is no one silver bullet approach to empowering girls. A number of interventions, including quality education, access to adolescent-friendly health services including sexual and reproductive health services, economic literacy, access to justice and programs that work to achieve gender equality, are all necessary and must be provided through human rights- and evidence-based programming.
Attention from Congress and the strategy itself have proven that empowering adolescent girls can and should be a bipartisan effort. The Strategy builds on and incorporates efforts from both the Bush and Obama administrations by including PEPFAR programming, such as the DREAMS initiative and Let Girls Learn. This strategy, and the cross-cutting initiatives it includes, must be fully funded and implemented by the Trump administration in order to meet girls’ needs and ensure their rights. This is the right thing to do and the smart thing to do.
Gayatri Patel is the Senior Policy Advocate for Gender & Empowerment at CARE USA. Helena Minchew is Program Officer for U.S. Foreign Policy and Advocacy at International Women's Health Coalition (IWHC). Lyric Thompson is the Director of Policy and Advocacy at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW). Rachel Clement is Policy Associate at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW).