The summer of the summit: Now what for child, early and forced marriage?

International Women's Health Coalition

2014 may just prove to be the year that changed the course for child, early and forced marriage (CEFM). So far this year we’ve seen significant statements, commitments and dollars put forward on the global stage.

In just the last four months, the African Union launched its Campaign to End Child Marriage in Africa and the Girl Summit, a day dedicated to ending CEFM and female genital mutilation, in July prompted an unprecedented number of financial and programmatic commitments from an unprecedented number of countries – both donor countries and countries facing a high-prevalence of child marriage.

At the United Nations, CEFM was prioritized in outcome documents from the Commission on the Status of Women and the Conference on Population and Development, while the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a report defining the practice and setting out concrete recommendations for countries on how to end it.

Looking ahead to the fall, advocates expect that a resolution addressing CEFM will be introduced at  the UN General Assembly. If passed, it is hoped that this resolution will mandate countries to take meaningful action to end the practice within a generation.

All of these developments have been a long time coming – countless advocates, activists and coalitions, including Girls Not Brides, have been working tirelessly to ensure that CEFM is on the minds of policy-makers from New York to Geneva, Washington to Delhi.

The Girls Not Brides global campaign to end child marriage was launched with the Elders during the Clinton Global Initiative in 2011 when, it was almost unthinkable that world leaders would come together for something like the Girl Summit.

Urging the US government to address child marriage

For our part, Girls Not Brides USA, the US partnership to end child marriage, has been working with the U.S. Government to ensure that the United States is a leading partner in the global movement to end CEFM. In March of last year, we worked with our Congressional champions to pass groundbreaking legislation mandating the Secretary of State to develop a whole-of-Government strategy to end child marriage globally.

Since then, we have been working with our allies at the White House, State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development to articulate what elements such a strategy should contain to successfully and comprehensively pull together the full power of U.S. foreign policy to both prevent CEFM and address the myriad needs of married girls, who are among the world’s most marginalized people.

There’s clearly appetite across the U.S. Government to take action. CEFM has been raised in various speeches at the UN, commanded attention in agency-level policy guidance, and begun to see some small investments in foreign assistance programs.

However, we’re still a long ways off from coherently and consistently articulating what impact the U.S. seeks to make in this area, and how it will strategically invest political and financial capital to do so.

Child marriage at the US – Africa Summit

For instance, earlier this month, President Obama held the first-ever US-Africa Leaders Summit, which brought 50 heads of state to Washington to discuss issues of mutual interest, such as trade, governance and economic growth. The Summit theme proclaimed that “Investing in the Next Generation” would be at the top of the agenda, yet somehow, despite the fact that 30% of girls across Africa are married as children, and with that rate soaring to over 70% in some countries, the issue was totally ignored.

This isn’t the only human rights issue that was missing–the White House has received criticism that human rights matters took a notable back seat in the Summit’s proceedings. But when leaders were gathered expressly to look ahead to the issues that would compromise the full empowerment of Africa’s youthful future, the absence of CEFM from the dialogue is inconceivable.

Child, early and forced marriage is a human rights violation, an impediment to the next generation’s ability to thrive, and undermines American investments in key areas such as health, education and governance.

Girls Not Brides USA responded by co-sponsoring a panel on the issue, highlighting promising practices as well as the lived experiences of girls at risk of or already in early and forced marriages. During the discussion, experts and activists from the continent made the case for leaders’ urgent investment to end CEFM and promote the health, education and empowerment of girls and boys, setting them on a path for successful, productive lives and contributions to more peaceful and prosperous societies.

The African Union’s Goodwill Ambassador for the Campaign to End Child Marriage, Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, said it best when she called on leaders to “put young people, put girls at the center. It is the investment of a lifetime for us to be able to end child marriage.

A comprehensive and holistic approach to ending child marriage

In order to truly do its part, the U.S. needs to heed this call and execute on its legal mandate to develop a comprehensive, coordinated and funded national strategy that ensures a whole-of-government approach to the U.S. Government’s work to end the practice and meet the needs of married girls.

This means our development agency creating evidence-based, stand-alone programs to delay the age of marriage, foster girls’ agency and choice and promote equitable and rights-based societies that give girls the tools they need to thrive, while also leveraging our considerable investments in such areas as health, education and food security to ensure these programs are being fully utilized to address related elements of the practice.

This means orienting our diplomatic energies, both on the world stage and in bilateral talks with countries that have high rates of child marriage, to ensure that carrots—and, where necessary, sticks—are deployed to encourage meaningful action by all countries to end this global scourge. Such a strategy would recognize and institutionalize the fact that child, early and forced marriage impacts the whole life of the girl and that holistic approaches are therefore necessary to end it.

During the Girl Summit, the US Government announced $15 million in funding over the next two years to combat child marriage. While this is a step in the right direction, it does not represent the U.S.’s fair share of what it will take to stop the marriage of the 142 million girls who will be married in the next decade or provide the services already married girls desperately need.

When the US Government truly prioritizes ending CEFM and meeting the needs of married girls, we will see great gains for our goals of promoting gender equality, ending discrimination and abuse, increasing educational achievement, and reducing maternal and child mortality. Until then, our promises to invest in girls and the next generation of Africa and beyond will continue to ring somewhat hollow.