Whose human rights count? Trump administration deemphasizes abuse of women and girls

Every year, the State Department delivers a series of country-level human rights reports. What is included reveals a great deal about an administration’s priorities. This year the Trump Administration called out China, Iran, South Sudan and Nicaragua for their human rights violations. What is excluded is equally notable: The killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi was called “politically motivated,” but the report didn’t call out the Saudi government. Also underplayed in this year’s report is one of the greatest human rights violations against girls: Child marriage.


The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 mandates “a complete and full report regarding the status of internationally recognized human rights” for countries that are part of the United Nations or who receive U.S. foreign assistance, annually. Child marriage has been included as a human rights abuse since 2012, when it was codified as a reporting requirement in the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act of 2013.

The inclusion of child marriage was—and is—a big win for addressing a practice that impacts 12 million girls each year. Child marriage, or any marriage where one or both parties is under 18 years of age, is much more likely to happen to girls than it is boys. A human rights abuse in and of itself, child marriage often leads to the violation of other rights to education, health and a life free from violence and exploitation.

In delivering remarks on the release of the 2018 reports, Michael Kozak of the State Department Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor noted that under the Trump Administration, the reports, would no longer report on things like maternal mortality or access to contraception, because a hyperlink to other reporting sources was included instead.

There was widespread confusion and outrage — and even a lawsuit — when this change was first announced in 2017. State Department officials called the newly truncated reports “streamlined,” but a recent analysis from Oxfam demonstrated the 2017 report is not statistically significantly shorter than its 2016 counterpart, but the reporting on the rights of women and girls and LGBTQ individuals was either erased completely or significantly truncated.

Less reported on is the significantly reduced reporting on child marriage in the human rights reports.


On the International Day of the Girl Child in 2017 President Donald Trump said that the Administration is "working to ensure that every girl is born into a world where she is free to live her life to the fullest." It is not clear how this administration is empowering girls or addressing child marriage. For example, the section of the Niger country report focused on child marriage is only half as long as it was in 2016, even though Niger has the world’s highest proportion of girls married as children — an astonishing 76 percent. And in Yemen, where we know child marriage is increasing due to conflict and where two thirds of girls marry before their 18th birthdays, the 2018 section on child marriage is just 53 words long, down from 142 words just two years ago.

The legislation that mandated annual reporting on child marriage in the human rights reports also required that the State Department develop and implement a multiyear, multi-sectoral strategy to prevent and respond to child marriage at diplomatic and programmatic levels. The Obama Administration responded with the U.S. Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls late in 2016. However, three years on, the implementation of that Strategy has not been clearly or publicly reported on.

There is a decades-long history of human rights reporting from administrations on both sides of the aisle. These reports have most certainly reflected the foreign policy priorities of each administration. It is telling, then, that this administration chose to “streamline” sections focusing on gender, reproductive health or LGBTQ rights.

The administration should return to reporting robustly on child marriage as a human right abuse. While each report is important on its own, it is important to be able to follow progress (or regression) over time.

While no country has a perfect human rights record, neither do countries like to be named and shamed in these reports. In order for the reports to carry any weight they must not only be written, they must be leveraged.

Furthermore, the U.S. congress should continue to use their oversight role to push the Department of State to report on all human rights, not just the ones that happen to be politically expedient. They should also allocate funding to empower girls and address the problem of child marriage at home and abroad.

Rachel Clement is Policy Advocate at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), which advances gender equity, inclusion and the alleviation of poverty worldwide. She leads two civil society coalitions: Girls Not Brides USA and the Coalition for Adolescent Girls.