A Year Later, the World’s Girls are Still Waiting

Seven hundred million women alive today were married as children. Robbed of their childhood, marital vows for girls typically mean an end to education, early childbearing that puts their still-developing bodies at risk, a life of servitude, increased exposure to violence and abuse and limited opportunities to make choices about their own future.

Child marriage is defined as a marriage where the bride, groom or both are below the age of 18. The bulk of child marriages around the world occur with girls under age 18, and they are most often married to much older men. These marriages are, first and foremost, a human rights abuse. But the implications go beyond that: Child marriage poses a tremendous barrier to global social and economic development, and it is shockingly widespread. It is also preventable.

With this in mind, researchers, development practitioners, governments and activists around the world are rallying to end this harmful practice. Indeed, Ms. has lent its voice to the global call for action on the issue, with a cover story featuring Angelina Jolie and her campaign against child marriage, and profiling the work of numerous organizations doing good work in this arena. This week, several of those organizations, including the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), where I work, and the advocacy coalition we co-chair, Girls Not Brides USA, are collaborating to host the second annual Girl Summit DC in Washington. This important gathering of government officials, experts and advocates is considering the latest research and lessons, and providing policy and program solutions that will begin to chart the course forward to end child marriage.

Importantly, the Girl Summit DC also serves as a platform upon which to assess progress on commitments to end child marriage made last year, when the United Kingdom and UNICEF organized Girl Summit, a global meeting calling for action to end child marriage and female genital cutting/mutilation. At last year’s Girl Summit DC, as well as the global gathering, the United States was one of many countries committing to action in this area, citing a number of new and existing foreign assistance programs it would implement with a goal of preventing marriage for girls and meeting the needs of already-married girls. This included research studies by the International Center for Research on Women and Population Council documenting the effectiveness of different interventions to delay marriage in India, Burkina Faso, Tanzania and Ethiopia, as well as new programs to raise awareness and provide services to girls in Nepal, Yemen and Benin.

These commitments, while worthy of celebration, paled in comparison to what advocates closely following the issue were hoping for, and what most other donor governments committed to. Indeed, while the U.S. committed $4.8 million in funding to end child marriage, most of these funds had already been allotted. And they came as the U.K. announced nearly $90 million in new funds. Even private foundations stepped up investment, with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation working with the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation to award a grant of $4.2 million to study the economic impacts of child marriage.

On the heels of recent legislation by the U.S. Congress directing the Secretary of State to write a comprehensive strategy outlining how the United States would end child marriage through its foreign policy and assistance programs, there was no mention at the Girl Summit of any grand strategic vision for impact the U.S. would seek to achieve, nor any commitment to meaningfully increase investments in this area.

A year later, and ahead of the African Union’s upcoming Girl Summit, advocates and officials are reconvening to examine progress and discuss what more can be done.

Through continued advocacy both inside and out of government, there has been significant—though incomplete—progress.

  • The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has provided its staff with the tools to integrate a focus on child marriage prevention and response across various development programs, from maternal and child health, to democratic governance, education and food security, among other areas.
  • First Lady Michelle Obama has used her platform to call for change, including by expanding Let Girls Learn from a small social media campaign to a multimillion-dollar global partnership dismantling barriers to secondary education for adolescent girls around the world. Girls with no secondary education are three times more likely to be married early than girls who go to high school.
  • Last month, Catherine M. Russell, the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, responded toa recent petition calling for a strategy to end child marriage to be given the full force of law, stating that she is writing an Adolescent Girl Strategy to do just that, which would be made public by the end of the year.
  • On the international stage, the U.S. has also lent support to United Nations resolutions on child marriage and the inclusion of a target to end child marriage by 2030 within the world’s new global goals.

The flurry of recent initiatives attests to the fact that child marriage has the attention of U.S. policymakers who are on board with a vision of a future that is comprised of healthy, happy, educated girls who can live their lives free from violence and abuse. But for advocates looking for long-term assurances that child marriage is and will continue to be a foreign policy priority for years to come, these efforts don’t provide the security the world’s girls need.

To provide girls with the protection they deserve, we need a policy framework that clearly states this issue will stay on our foreign policy agenda and that sets concrete goals so we can measure our progress. By how much do we seek to reduce the prevalence of the practice? Where will we invest to do it? By when do we seek to achieve this goal? Who is responsible for doing it?

These are the questions that advocates hope the forthcoming Adolescent Girl Strategy will address, giving us a valuable tool by which we can both celebrate progress gained and also hold current and future leaders to account.

The lives of millions of girls the world over depend on it.

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Lyric Thompson is the founder and CEO of the Feminist Foreign Policy Collaborative, where she leads global coalition efforts to refine and advance the highest level of ambition and impact for feminist foreign policies. Previously, she served vice president of policy, advocacy and strategy at the International Center for Research on Women, as a primary expert and strategist for Amnesty International USA’s women’s human rights program, and senior policy manager at Women for Women International. She writes regularly on feminist issues for such platforms as the New York Times, Foreign Policy Magazine, Devex and Ms.