The thought is heartbreaking: an 11-year old girl, forced to marry a man several years her senior who sexually abused her, drops out of school and bears five children by the time she is 17. She is a child with adult responsibilities—but a minor in the eyes of the law.
The story of this crime doesn’t take place in Afghanistan or Niger: It is set in Florida. Child marriage, where one or both parties are under the age of 18, affects 650 million women and 150 million men worldwide—including the United States and Europe. That’s one girl every 23 seconds.
This June, close to 500 advocates, activists, survivors, practitioners and donors gathered in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia at the global meeting of Girls Not Brides, an international coalition dedicated to ending child marriage. We met to dissect and deliberate the root causes of and solutions to child marriage—and while, as Americans, we like to think of ourselves immune to many of the world’s most pressing concerns, what we heard about the ways in which child marriage impacts girls in other countries resonated with our work on this issue right here in the United States.
Worldwide, UNICEF estimates that child marriage rates are going down, and that approximately 25 million child marriages were prevented in the last decade. This is incredible progress on an issue many thought both untouchable and unchangeable 10 years ago. The decline in the numbers of girls and boys getting married as children is due to the efforts of many, but global pressure must continue if we are to end this practice for good.
Child marriage is recognized as a human rights abuse, one which often violates girls’ rights to health and education, and which can trap them in a cycle of poverty and violence. It has enormous consequences for the girls themselves, but also for their communities and the economy. While both boys and girls are married as children, girls bear a greater burden: The health and well-being of girls who marry as children is worse, both in the near- and long-term, than those of their peers who are able to delay marriage until they are at least 18.
It is often difficult to be a global leader in a movement when our own domestic policies and practices do not match our foreign policy rhetoric. In the United States, efforts to reform minimum age of marriage laws have been met with mixed results. As advocates focused on child marriage at the global and national levels, our objectives going into the meeting were quite different, but we came away feeling more united than ever.
For the most part, we already know how to “solve” child marriage: Empower girls with information, skills and support networks; provide economic support and incentives to girls and their families; educate and rally parents and community members; enhance girls’ access to a high-quality education; and encourage supportive laws and policies.
If we have the solutions, why is this still an issue?
Again and again at the Global Meeting, Girls Not Brides members the world over mentioned the same impediments to progress: a lack of concerted funding to tackle child marriage, closing civil society spaces and resistance from politicians, religious and cultural leaders.
Laws, and their consistent enforcement, are a key piece of the multisector approach that is necessary to end child marriage. In almost all 50 states and the District of Columbia, child marriage is legal. The Tahirih Justice Center has been working tirelessly to encourage the adoption of minimum age of marriage laws that set the age of marriage at 18 without exceptions for both boys and girls, but despite meaningful progress in several states—Virginia, Texas, New York and Kentucky—and two new bright-line laws in Delaware and New Jersey making 18 the minimum age of marriage without exceptions, progress on state-by-state legislation has been a long and often difficult road.
Legislative progress often moves slower than advocates would hope, but we can see that change is possible. Indeed, it is happening: the number of people marrying before the age of 18 in the United States fell by about 61 percent between 2000 and 2010. Still, data collected from 41 states showed that between 2000 and 2015, well over 200,000 children under age 18 were married in America.
At the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), we recently conducted a study with the World Bank which showed that child marriage will cost the global economy trillions of dollars by 2030. For a country like Niger, where 76 percent of girls marry before they become adults—the highest rate of child marriage globally—the practice has led to a loss of $188 million in earnings. Were child marriage to be eliminated, the annual benefit would be equal to $1.7 billion.
By way of comparison, Florida, which has a population roughly equal to that of Niger, 16,486 children were married between 2000 and 2015. The majority of those married were underage girls marrying adult men. While harrowing stories like that of Sherry Johnson may be fewer in Florida, the impacts are no less damaging than they are in Niger for girls like Hamsatou.
Since 2012, 15 countries have raised the age of marriage to 18 or removed exceptions that allow minors to marry before the age of 18. The U.S. should be a leader in ending the practice of child marriage both at home and abroad.—but unfortunately, the U.S. government was not represented among major donors contributing to the newly launched Girls First Fund, nor were its officials present at the Girls Not Brides Global Meeting. The serious lack of funding for and attention to child marriage prevention domestically and overseas means that girls everywhere, from Maryland to Mali, are not receiving the protection, services and support they need to avoid or leave marriages they do not want.
Our willingness to turn a blind eye to the issue must end. The U.S. can and must address the needs of girls at home and abroad simultaneously. We can do better than this—but we need support from Congress, USAID, the State Department and state legislatures to do so.
Together, we can end child marriage wherever it occurs and empower girls to live free and full lives where they marry only whom, when and if they choose.