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New law makes ending child marriage a US government priority

U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Please visit the author's website here: | Photo credit: Nicolas Raymond.

In a boost for global efforts to end child marriage, the US Congress yesterday passed the Violence Against Women Reauthorisation Act, a law which is significant for women and girls in the US and includes provisions to prioritise the reduction of child marriage internationally. Specifically, it requires the US Secretary of State to “establish and implement a multi-year, multi-sectoral strategy to prevent child marriage”.

Just one week ahead of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, passage of the Act underlines the determination of the US government to address child marriage, a practice that often has violent consequences for girls. In particular, child brides are more vulnerable to domestic abuse than their unmarried peers and are often subjected to sexual violence.

“Passage of the VAW Act is a victory for women and girls living in the US and abroad,” said co-chairs of Girls Not Brides USA Erin Kennedy, CARE USA; Jennifer Redner, IWHC; and Lyric Thompson, ICRW.

“Congress has spoken,” continued Girls Not Brides USA co-chairs. “And thanks to the hard work of our champions Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), former Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME), Reps Aaron Schock (R-IL) Betty McCollum (D-MN), and Girls Not Brides USA and its members, the US is now required to do its part to end child marriage and positively impact the lives of millions of the world’s most vulnerable girls”.

Crucially, the Act recognises that the challenges faced by child brides are unique. Girls are at high risk of death or injury in childbirth yet find it difficult to access health services often aimed at older or married women. They drop out of school, too, and lack the educational or economic opportunities to lift their family out of poverty. The Act requires the US Secretary of State to develop a strategy “that should address the unique needs, vulnerabilities and potential of girls younger than 18 years of age in developing countries”.

The impact of VAW Act will be felt far beyond Capitol Hill

The impact of the Act will be felt far beyond Capitol Hill. For over 50 years, the State Department has required its embassies around the world to submit reports on the status of human rights in country. Given that child marriage is an abuse of a girl’s fundamental rights, the Act now requires that the State Department include the rate of child marriage in its country status reports. This underlines that child marriage is a serious human rights violation and does much to encourage country governments to take action to reduce the practice.

“Tens of millions of women and girls around the world have lost their dignity, freedom, and health due to forced child marriage,” said Senator Dick Durbin, who has long called for US action on child marriage and was instrumental in getting the child marriage provisions included in the law. “Passage of today’s law puts this issue front and centre and makes clear that it is the policy of the US government to end child marriage around the globe. These important steps will change the lives of millions in some of the world’s forgotten places.”

Passage of today’s law puts this issue front and centre and makes clear that it is the policy of the US government to end child marriage around the globe.

Senator Durbin (D-IL)

Congressman Aaron Schock expressed his satisfaction at the Act’s passage through Congress: “Child marriage is a tragedy happening on an epic scale around the world. This is a moral, economic and humanitarian crisis that doesn’t receive nearly enough attention in our country. However, all that begins to change today with the passage of our legislation.”

The Violence Against Women Act had passed the US Senate with broad bipartisan support, yet there were concerns the Act would not pass the House of Representatives. These concerns were allayed when the Act passed the House early on 28 February 2013. President Barack Obama will now sign the Act into law.

In August last year, Archbishop Tutu and Graça Machel of The Elders urged the United States administration to make eliminating child marriage a foreign policy goal. “Without tackling child marriage, the US government cannot hope to achieve its development ambitions,” they wrote in the Washington Post.

The Elders also travelled to the United States in October 2012 for the first-ever International Day of the Girl. After meeting with Secretary of State Clinton, Desmond Tutu left the State Department “with his heart singing” as a result of new US government and private initiatives to prevent child marriage and promote the education of girls.

The Violence Against Women Act is important for women and girls experiencing violence in the US and also clearly demonstrates that ending child marriage is a US foreign policy priority. We hope that other governments follow suit and demonstrate their commitment to ending a practice that robs more than 14 million girls a year of their childhood.