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Congress Debates Legislation to Prevent Child Marriage

August 04, 2010

Momentum is building in Congress for passage of legislation aimed at curbing the practice of child marriage in developing countries. Last month on Capitol Hill, the Human Rights Commission held a hearing on child marriage, calling in experts, including Melanne Verveer, the Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, who urged Congress to pass the International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act (H.R. 2103 S. 987).

The legislation was introduced by Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME) in the U.S. Senate. The bills authorize the President to provide assistance to prevent the incidence of child marriage and promote the educational, health, economic, social, and legal empowerment of girls. The State Department is required to come up with a multi-year strategy to prevent child marriage and promote the empowerment of young girls who are at risk of child marriage.

Child marriage is a recognized violation of human rights, an average of 25,000 girls a day become child brides, and unless something is done to change this trend within the next 10 years, over 100 million girls in the developing world will become child brides. 

According to the U.S. State Department survey in 2005, child marriage is a concern in 64 of the 182 countries that were surveyed. It is most common in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where girls as young as 8 can be married to men significantly older. These girls are often prevented from continuing their education and frequently become pregnant before they are physically capable of having a safe pregnancy. Girls under the age of 15 have a five times greater risk of dying in childbirth than women aged 20 to 24. Currently, there are 60 million girls who have been married before their 18th birthday. As a consequence of child marriage, complications related to childbirth and pregnancies are the leading cause of death worldwide for girls ages 15-18.

Child brides also face a significantly greater risk of domestic violence and HIV infection.  Because of their unequal ages and social status, child brides are frequently unable to negotiate with their husbands about sex, contraception, and birth spacing. They often encounter difficulties in finding employment outside the home because schooling is interrupted.

The children of child brides are also victims. Their mothers often die early, or suffer life- threatening illnesses, due to pregnancy-related causes. Children born to child brides also have higher rates of low birth weights, infant mortality, and premature birth than those of children born to older mothers.

The Population Institute has sent letters to both the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee urging them to take action on the legislation. Supporters of the bill hope that it will pass as a free-standing bill before the 111th Congress adjourns later this year.  

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