Child Marriage is an Affront to Women's Empowerment

Child Marriage is an Affront to Women's Empowerment
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Annie Spratt

To Empower Women, Begin with Protecting Girls

Today, our 24-hour news cycle is fraught with accounts of sexual misconduct and assault, intimidation in the workplace, and systemic gender inequity—leaving the national conscience a changed landscape. With the scar tissue still healing for victims and survivors, the #Metoo movement has ignited a long overdue empowerment revolution for women. Going into 2018, how can we best proceed to right some of the egregious wrongs that have plagued women from becoming the best versions of themselves emotionally, intellectually and professionally?

At this year's end, the UN Women’s 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence Campaign is an opportunity to mobilize our voices to make violence against women not only illegal, but impossible. There are many culprits that stand in the way of the women's empowerment movement and child marriage is a flagrant example. When it comes to this issue, our state laws fail to protect young girls, media coverage is underreported, legislators do the bare minimum, and the societal impact of a child subjected to marriage as young as 13— is left unaddressed. As advocates against child marriage, we need to call such unions for what they are—contracts conducive to extreme duress, harassment, and, in the worst of all cases, rape for at-risk minors.

The numbers don’t lie – but are we listening?

Based on state marriage license data and accounts by advocacy groups, over 200,000 children, mainly girls, were married between 2000 and 2015. These young women, whose stories are largely unknown, form a disturbing panorama of indistinguishable faces obscured by 25 state laws which do not set a minimum age floor for marriage. How is it that a nation founded on the principles of liberty and justice for all fails to protect its most vulnerable citizens?

Despite children ages 16 and younger being married in Florida at a rate of one every few days, do we feel the heavy burden of these tragic stories in our conscience? In light of cases in which an Idaho father in May 2016 was found driving across multiple state lines to ensure that his young teen daughter marry the 24-year-old man who had raped and impregnated her—how many more victims will it take to disrupt our moral standstill to forbid child marriage?

When statistics reveal that young women living within U.S. borders face the same risks as girls in developing countries when subjected to marriage, there is a dire need for an advocacy movement that will catch fire in the media. When we juxtapose this societal issue with the child marriage laws set at 18 in Malawi a country of 1.7 million people who face serious issues with access to safe drinking water, or Nepal, a country that suffers from longstanding gender based violence —our marriage laws pale in comparison. According to the World Policy Analysis Center, when a girl marries before 18, she is three times more likely to be beaten by a spouse than a woman who marries at 21 or older. Overwhelming child marriage research also finds that girls who marry before 19 are 50 percent less likely to finish high school and four times less likely to graduate from college, increasing the likelihood of a lifetime of poverty.

Although U.S. child marriage rates are lower than the global average, we must do more. Condemning even one life to a destiny of unfulfilled potential is one life too many. The United Nations Children’s agency, UNICEF, estimates that the number of women married before their 18th birthday will grow from more than 700 million women today to around 950 million by 2030. By current estimates provided by Save the Children reports, the U.S. fails to improve the median, as it trails behind 31 other countries in quality of life metrics for young girls. This is shameful as every 7 seconds, a girl around the world under 15, is married and becomes one more statistic wrought with disadvantage and heartbreak.

Stakeholder challenges reach beyond state lines

Resistance to change child marriage laws comes with formidable barriers as some legislators in the U.S. liken it to the stifling of religious freedom, and in other circumstances, view it as the best solution for a teen pregnancy. For leading advocates who envision a world without child marriage in the U.S., the cultural and religious implications for different groups and families, act as an impenetrable wall to push forward policy. Jeanne Smoot, Senior Counsel for Policy and Strategy at the Tahirih Justice Center, laments that both the depth of understanding required to truly understand the complexity of child marriage laws as well as its inconsistencies across state borders, results in compromised solutions further muddled by competing interests and sluggish-moving legislative calendars.

As an advocate who has learned of as many as 3000 cases of forced marriages occurring in the U.S. between 2009 and 2011 as in developing countries, our country continues to undermine the necessary safeguards to shield minors from abuse. Currently, U.S. laws are in place where clerks alone—without judges —can approve marriages of all minors in 8 states and Washington DC. Presently, our laws are enacted without regard to human rights as only 17 states require judges to consider the “minors’ best interests” (proper measures to ensure a coercion-free union)—and, at this very moment —our policies warrant pregnancy to lower the minimum marriage age. As infuriating as these laws are, the irony escalates when confronted with our moral apathy towards the fate of the most vulnerable for failure—young girls who more often than not come from poverty, lack the proper guidance to make prudent decisions, and upon marriage before age 18, lack the legal capacity to file for a motion to divorce, unless accompanied by a supportive adult or a legal services organization.

Not enough progress across state lines

To contextualize this issue, it must be viewed at the state level. Although Virginia, Texas, and New York have made substantial progress to change child marriage laws—with Virginia recently becoming the first state to officially limit marriage to adults ages 18 or older—loopholes in state laws and local politics continue to present obstacles. Earlier this year, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation that barred marriage before the age of 17; however, 17-year-olds are still permitted to marry with a judge’s permission. This year New Jersey rejected a bill to end teenage marriage, citing the authority of an assigned judge to be a sufficient safeguard against coercion by parents or partners. Shortly afterwards, legislators in New Hampshire voted down a bill to ban marriage before 18, opting instead, to accommodate a 111 year old law that still allows girls as young as 13, and boys as young as 14, to marry in the state. And, as late as October 2017, only 13 states will require all minors to seek judicial approval to marry.

A Call to Action to All The Silence Breakers

The umbrella of solidarity provided by the #MeToo and TIME magazine’s Person of the Year is a tidal wave of empowerment that must not forsake the young girls in our country. To empower women, we must begin with girls and the child marriage victims who are still without a platform to come forward with their stories.

The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence Campaign is a perfect time to draw public attention now and beyond 2017. We can speak for the most vulnerable, and we can create a coalition of knowledge to both empower and amplify our own voices to address prevention and spur intervention for women.

To the courageous women who have shared their stories of forced child marriage with the public, you have all my unequivocal support and respect, it is your bravery that shows how direly we need to act. Starting today, let us work together to pave the way for a future without the threat of violence, harassment, aggression, and coercion of women and girls. What will be your contribution? How can your voice bring lasting change?

Francine LeFrak

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