The prospect of commitments by the United States at today’s Girl Summit to end child, early and forced marriage, is eagerly awaited by those campaigning globally to end this human rights abuse. But if the international community hopes to end child marriage in a generation, as the Summit charter suggests, the US will have to meaningfully ramp up its current efforts to end the practice; specifically, the US should announce a well-coordinated and well-funded national strategy to end child marriage and meet the needs of married girls.
To date, US efforts have consisted of great talk - from the Ambassador at Large for Global Women’s Issues Catherine Russell’s statements at the UN Commission on the Status of Women, to recent remarks by Secretary of State John Kerry at World Population Day, and even a Presidential Proclamation issued on the last International Day of the Girl - as well as a few small programmatic investments. It’s difficult to say exactly how much the U.S. is spending in this area, but USAID is funding a handful of programmes to understand what approaches work to delay marriage. This portfolio includes an ICRW research project in India that is that is helping us understand the impact of a conditional cash transfer (CCT) programme on delaying the age of marriage. Initial results indicate that the CCT has had a positive effect in boosting educational attainment for girls; findings on whether they delay age of marriage will be forthcoming in the next round of survey results.
Here in the US a 2011 survey by the Tahirih Justice Center identified as many as 3,000 forced marriage cases within American borders. As such, advocates are also pushing for US action to curb the practice among American citizens as well - something the U.K. has already started to do.
USAID has released a vision document that outlines how child marriage is a human rights abuse and development challenge that commands US attention, but the US as a whole has yet to articulate any specific goals in addressing the issue. No country is unaffected by the practice, but donors like the US can craft a strategy to guide investments by taking into account several factors, including the burden of child marriage among girls under 15 and 18; data such as maternal mortality, under-5 mortality, female adult literacy; identifying where there is an enabling legal and governance environment, and where complementary government and other donor initiatives can be strengthened to address child marriage.
One step the Obama administration can take immediately is to develop a comprehensive strategy outlining the actions it will take to end child marriage globally. This would be consistent with a growing international consensus: a recent report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights cited far-reaching international legal precedence for action on the issue, and called on states to develop and implement national policies and strategies to end the practice:
"It is recommended that national policies and strategies be developed and implemented with the involvement of relevant government departments at the national and local levels, civil society organizations, including women’s groups, religious and community leaders, national human rights institutions and other relevant stakeholders, including legislators and the judiciary. (A/HRC/26/22)".
Admittedly, US policymakers are often reluctant to take up the pen on the basis of UN. recommendations. But in this case, a bi-partisan effort in the increasingly-partisan US Congress led to passage of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013, which specifically calls on the Secretary of State to develop such a strategy.
If America is serious about ending this practice in a generation, this means not just speeches and a handful of USAID programs, but also the hard work of ensuring that American diplomats are negotiating with their counterparts in countries where the practice is widespread to ensure they know the US takes this issue seriously. There’s currently a child marriage reporting requirement in the State Department Human Rights reports, but it’s unclear if diplomats know they can use this information - with carrots or sticks - in their strategic dialogues with other countries. It means being directly involved in difficult UN negotiations, including the ones now determining the post-2015 development agenda, to ensure a target on ending child, early and forced marriage is included under a gender equality goal. It means USAID leadership - starting today, with Ambassador Russell and Administrator Shah’s announcement - making a concerted effort to integrate child marriage prevention into America’s existing foreign aid investments: health, education, food security and nutrition, peace and security and rule of law, as argued by many advocates and the Council on Foreign Relations.
The Obama Administration has done more to integrate a focus on gender equality and women in US foreign policy than any other, from acknowledging the importance of gender equality in the National Security Strategy, to launching a National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security. But adolescent girls have been largely overlooked in these efforts. With only two years left in office, now is the time to produce a strategy that looks at their specific needs. Today, we are looking to London in the hopes that commitment will be extended to adolescent girls, who hold the greatest promise for a better world for us all.