US Senate passes legislation calling for action on child marriage. Why does it matter?

The United States Senate has passed the International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act (S.414). Girls Not Brides explores why this is important and what impact it could have on the millions of girls affected by child marriage.

Yesterday, 24 May 2012, the United States Senate passed the International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act (S.414). The bill was passed unanimously by voice vote, demonstrating strong bipartisan support for an end to child marriage, a practice that denies 10 million girls a year their rights to health, education and security.

In the current U.S. political climate, which is overshadowed by divisive politics and an election in November, it is difficult to overstate the significance of the bill’s passage through the Senate without dissent. It is testament to how the issue of child marriage can transcend politics.

The legislation describes child marriage as a human rights violation and states that the prevention and elimination of child marriage should be a U.S. foreign policy goal. It also requires the U.S. government to develop an integrated approach to reduce, and ultimately end, the practice of child marriage. This means that the US government will be required to make sure that the needs of girls vulnerable to early marriage and child brides are integrated across its development programmes, whether they be on maternal or child health, girls’ education, economic development, or HIV prevention.

But what does that mean if you’re a girl at risk of marriage before 18?

Development programmes like those supported by the U.S. might, for example, train teachers about what they can do to help keep you in school and avoid early marriage. It might mean that you and your family are made aware of the harmful impact of child marriage through access to information and services. Or if you’re a child bride, it could mean that programmes are put in place to make sure you know how to prevent early pregnancy and where to access support during pregnancy. Girls under 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than girls in their 20s, so programmes that help child brides to prevent early pregnancy and avoid pregnancy related complications will save lives.

What next?

This isn’t the first time that the US Senate has passed such a bill. In December 2010 the same bill was passed, however a small group of members of the U.S. House of Representatives blocked its ultimate passage through Congress. Because of the political dynamics in the House, it is not expected that the House will take up and vote on the legislation that the Senate has once again joined together in a bipartisan way to pass.

Instead, advocates are turning their attention to the Obama Administration and are calling for the increased support and investment needed to reach girls and their communities through child marriage prevention and married adolescent programmes. We know what works to end this practice and what is needed is action today to make a difference to the lives of millions of girls around the world.

Ultimately, the passage of this legislation through the US Senate matters because it recognises child marriage as a human rights violation and that U.S. development efforts to support girls and women around the world won’t work unless we also address child marriage. It is time for the U.S. government to turn that recognition into action and develop and implement a strategy that will have a concrete impact on the lives of the millions of married girls and those vulnerable to early marriage.