Washington — U.S. legislation signed into law March 7 renews and strengthens an almost 20-year-old law designed to prevent and respond to violence against women, but the 2013 version reaches beyond the U.S. population to the world at large in an attempt to prevent marriage of children under 18.
The new provisions of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) direct the secretary of state to develop and implement a plan to prevent child marriage, promote empowerment of girls at risk of early marriage, and target countries where a high prevalence of child marriage is known to occur.
The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimates that more than 140 million girls will become child brides in the years ahead. The rate of child marriage accounts for more than 14 million marriages annually, or 39,000 young girls who are forced into a premature marriage each day.
International studies of the practice show that early marriage affects a woman's entire future, her health and her potential. Early marriage usually ends a girl's education, blocks her opportunity to develop vocational skills, increases her risk of becoming a victim of violence, and exposes her to pregnancy before she has fully matured.
Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois was instrumental in the initiatives against child marriage in the VAWA.
Child marriage is "the root cause of many of the world's most pressing development issues -- HIV/AIDS, child mortality and abject poverty," said Durbin in a statement released through his Washington office. Inclusion of child marriage provisions in VAWA put the issue squarely before the public and international partners, he said.
"It is the policy of the U.S. 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," Durbin said.
The advancement of women and girls is a central element of U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration. The ambassador-at-large for global women's issues within the State Department plays a leading role in advancing this issue in foreign policy forums.
U.S. Representative Aaron Schock, also from Illinois, joined Durbin in expanding U.S. efforts to discourage child marriage, which he called a "tragedy happening on an epic scale" in some countries of the world.
Schock went on a fact-finding trip with an international aid organization to observe the practice. "I saw firsthand how child marriage devastates young girls physically and emotionally while destroying their future," Schock said in a joint statement with another U.S. opponent of the practice, U.S. Representative Betty McCollum.
The advocacy group Girl Up, sponsored by the U.S.-based U.N. Foundation, also celebrates the inclusion of the international provisions in the VAWA and claims some of the credit. Tens of thousands of U.S. girls communicated their opposition to child marriage to lawmakers through this organization -- a testament to the power of youth voices -- said Girl Up campaign head Melissa Hillebrenner.
"This is an amazing victory for girls, but only a start in the battle to end child marriage," Hillebrenner said. "It is going to take a concerted voice of grass-roots advocates, [nongovernmental organizations], the [United Nations], and champions like Senator Durbin and Representatives McCollum and Schock to root out this practice and give girls a chance to reach their full potential."
UNICEF also works to end child marriage, recognizing that the practice is centuries old with its roots tangled around complex issues of gender inequality, tradition and poverty. UNICEF reported in a recent news release that some parents agree to wed a young girl to another family simply to reduce household need, or because of an attractive dowry offered by the groom's family. Some cultures believe the early marriage of a girl child can bring good fortune, or will protect her from attack or sexual violence.
The UNICEF document describes efforts to end child marriage in Malawi, a country where at least half of young women are married before 18. Allowing girls to continue their education and skill development is one objective, according to Minister of Health Catherine Gotani, but reducing teen pregnancies and maternal deaths is also quite important.
"By ending early marriages we can avert up to 30 percent of maternal deaths and also reduce the neonatal mortality rate," said Gotani in the UNICEF press release.
Malawi is providing free access to early education, working with elders to emphasize the importance of education and working with lawmakers to raise the legal age for marriage.